The world is definitely skeptical about genetically modified organisms and wondering about the risk of these organisms escaping into the environment. These organisms are already producing insulin and other drug ingredients, helping produce biofuels, teaching scientists about human disease and improving fishing and agriculture. While the risks can be exaggerated, modified organisms do have the potential to upset natural ecosystems, if they were to escape. Physical containment alone is not enough. Lab dishes and industrial vats can break; workers can go home with inadvertently contaminated clothes and so on.
Two teams from USA have produced genetically modified (GM) bacteria that depend on a protein building block — an amino acid — that does not occur in nature. Both these research studies were published in the highly acclaimed journal Nature. The bacteria thrive in the laboratory, growing robustly as long as the unnatural amino acid is included in their diet. But several experiments involving 100 billion or more cells and lasting up to 20 days did not reveal a single microbe capable of surviving in the absence of the artificial supplement. “Our strains, to the extent that we can test them, won’t escape,” says Dan Mandell, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and an author on one of the two studies describing the strategy. The microbes also do not swap their engineered DNA with natural counterparts because they no longer speak life’s shared biochemical language. “Establishing safety and security from the get-go will really enable broad and open use of engineered organisms,” says Farren Isaacs, a synthetic biologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who led the other study. Synthetic amino acids/proteins are the answer to not let the genetically modified organisms out into the ‘wild’.
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