In a major breakthrough, scientists at Harvard and Yale have developed a new method to safely contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the lab. GMOs are everywhere, but they are still highly controversial. People fear that the organisms could contaminate the environment, thus spreading their modified DNA in non-modified organisms.

Scientists Devise Technique To Make GMOs Safer

New GMOs can’t survive in the wild

George Church of Harvard and Farren Isaacs, now at Yale, were able to create genetically-modified microbes that can survive only in the presence of certain compounds not found in nature. They rewrote the DNA of E. coli bacteria, which is widely used in the industrial production of adhesives, perfume, sealants, antibiotics and many other things.

They called the redesigned bacterium genetically recoded organism (GRO) rather than GMO. Its DNA was rewritten such that it requires a synthetic amino acid to survive. In the open environment, this synthetic amino acid doesn’t exist, so the GRO would be unable to survive and spread its modified genetic material. Scientists grew a trillion of E. coli in lab tests.They found that none could survive without the synthetic amino acid.

GROs are multi-virus resistant

In addition, scientists made their GRO multi-virus resistant by tweaking its genetic code to “confuse” any incoming virus. Viruses use DNA codons as an initial blueprint to build proteins necessary for killing the host cells and reproduce more viruses. Church changed 64 codons of one E. coli to ruin the viruses’ protein-making map. Scientists believe the new method would be extremely useful in the biotech industry as it provides containment as well as protection from viruses.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the value of GMOs skyrocketed from $2.3 billion in 1999 to $76 billion in 2010. Church said their method could also be applied to plants, but it would be a bit challenging because plants have six times more genes and ten times more codons than E. coli. The newly designed organisms could be safe enough to use outside. They could potentially be used to break down toxic chemicals on contaminated land or to clean up oil spills.

Findings of the study were published in the journal Nature.