Scientists Improve GMO Biocontainment Using “Genetic Firewall”

Scientists have reached another milestone in the field of “synthetic biology,” creating a bacteria which relies on a man-made chemical for survival.

A year ago the same scientists created organisms which have a unique genetic code, a purely synthetic organism. Now they have made a potentially game-changing discovery which removes many of the risks from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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GMO biocontainment: Numerous possibilities

Their work will allow for GMOs to be used for a variety of applications without the fear that the organisms could wreak havoc in the natural environment. The so-called “genetic firewall” ensures that the organisms cannot live outside of the environment that scientists choose.

So far the teams have succeeded in creating bacteria, but study leader George Church, a biologist at the Harvard Medical School, claims that “there is no fundamental barrier” to using the same technique in plants and animals.

Potential uses of the science behind the breakthrough include producing dairy products, synthesizing industrial chemicals, processing toxic waste and even manufacturing drugs, all processes in which microbes are already used. However concerns about the effects of GMOs on the environment has limited their use thus far.

Great potential

This latest research follows on from the their 2013 work, in which the scientists “recoded” DNA codes for an amino acid, essentially rewriting the genetic code. The two teams of scientists, one led by Church and the other led by former colleague Farren Isaacs, used this ability to create strains of E. coli bacteria which contain the DNA of a manmade amino acid, while also requiring synthetic amino acids in order to survive.

These amino acids are not naturally occurring, and consequently any GMOs which managed to escape into the wild would die. The odds of a microbe undoing all of the 49 genetic changes which the scientists made to its DNA are incredibly high, meaning that it should pose no threat to the environment.

Church claims that the teams could now pair the two pieces of research to create escape-proof microbes, potentially resulting in new kinds of drugs and polymers when used in conjunction with new amino acids.