GMOs Can Now Be Built With an Automatic 'Self-Destruct' Clause to Prevent Escape

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New method makes it impossible for GMOs to reproduce away from the lab. U.S. Department of Agriculture [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

One of the biggest fears surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is that they might escape from the lab and contaminate the environment. It's not just paranoia; contamination is a very real possibility. Lab dishes and industrial vats can — and do — break, and workers' clothes can inadvertently become escape vessels for lab-created GMOs.

The good news is that scientists have now created a method for preventing GMOs from spreading outside the lab, even if an accident occurs and they manage to escape, reports Harvard Medical School in a press release.

Researchers have genetically recoded a strain of E. coli with a synthetic amino acid so the bacteria can’t survive outside the lab. Basically, because this amino acid cannot be found anywhere in the wild, the genetically modified bacteria can only eat it in specially cooked-up lab cultures. And without the amino acid, the bacteria can’t perform the vital job of translating their RNA into properly folded proteins. So if any bacteria manage to escape, they'll soon die and be incapable of reproduction.

“If you make a chemical that’s potentially explosive, you put stabilizers in it. If you build a car, you put in seat belts and airbags,” explained George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Essentially, the genetically modified bacteria are made with a built-in safety lock, a "self-destruct" feature that triggers as soon as the organisms are removed from the lab.

The synthetic amino acids also offer another benefit. Namely, they make the bacteria resistant to viruses which, if accidentally introduced to a lab culture, can spell disaster to research efforts. So GMOs built with these synthetic amino acids are safer for both the environment and for industry.

“As part of our dedication to safety engineering in biology, we’re trying to get better at creating physically contained test systems to develop something that eventually will be so biologically contained that we won’t need physical containment anymore,” said Church.

It's good news, to be sure, but more long term testing needs to be completed before such a method can be considered truly lock-tight. As Jeff Goldblum's character in the film "Jurassic Park" famously pointed out: "Life finds a way."

Given the immense benefits that GMOs can provide if kept contained and controlled, we can only hope that such a prophecy does not also apply — as it nonetheless does in the film — to synthetic life.