Genetically modified organisms, GMOs, are a boon to society. They help create insulin, produce biofuels, and even clean up contaminated soil or water. Genetically engineered mosquitoes fight dengue virus, and immune system cells attack tumors. Yet, there are concerns that GMOs and products containing GMOs are harmful to humans and the environment. Particularly, the lab safety pre-requisite of biocontainment (preventing dangerous artificial organisms from accidentally escaping into the surrounding environment) is a subject of great worry for many.
Lab accidents necessitate biocontainment
Big and small lab accidents call for measures to contain microorganisms from releasing into the environment. The Anthrax release incident at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab raised concerns for scientists working on lab-grown organisms all over the world. The anthrax sample that was being transferred to two other CDC labs with lower biosafety levels was alive when it should have been inactive. Unaware that the samples were live, workers in the receiving labs were not wearing adequate protective equipment and risked serious contamination.
Accidental releases like these are more possible now than ever before, as living things are genetically altered in more extensive ways and GMOs are being used outside their conventional applications more often.
Safety lock for modified organisms
Scientists have now devised a solution that can prevent genetically modified bacteria from escaping a laboratory and causing health or environmental repercussions. Research papers by professors at Harvard Universities published simultaneously in Nature journal reveal the new mechanism.
As discussed in the studies, the breakthrough process involved altering the genetic makeup of E. coli bacteria in a way that made it dependent on unnatural amino acids for survival. These amino acids were available only on the lab dishes. If such genetically modified organisms escaped into the wild, they would starve and die.
The synthetic amino acids also make the bacteria resistant to harmful viruses which, if accidentally introduced to a lab culture, can spoil research efforts. This protective resistance makes these GMOs attractive to the companies who use modified bacteria to make chemicals, or in biohazard remediation processes like cleaning up toxic waste sites.
The process “addresses a longstanding problem in biotechnology”
The process of biocontainment has been discussed since the 1970s, but the processes used to date were ineffective and had their shortcomings. “This research represents a step-change towards building reliable control switches for GMOs,” says Karmella A. Haynes, an assistant professor at Arizona State University.
The new process has lowered the escape rate of lab-grown bacteria from one in a billion to one in a trillion. George Church, co-author of the Harvard paper, calls the technique “a compelling solution to biological containment.” However, it remains to be seen whether the process can be reciprocated for other micro-organisms and genetically modified plants.