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article imageKeeping GMOs safe in the event of environmental break-out

By Tim Sandle     Jan 26, 2015 in Science
One of the fears with genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) is that there is the risk of GMOs escaping into the environment and causing uncontrolled damage. To off-set this, two research groups have proposed new bio-safety measures.
The debate about whether GMOs pose an environmental risk has been running for many years. A GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant or animal that has been genetically engineered to create a specific set of traits including size, shelf life and color vibrancy. Whether the risks posed by GMOs is serious or not, research has recently been orientated towards stopping any GMOs that might escape from a research lab from causing havoc.
The new bio-safety initiative is based on making GMOs reliant on laboratory-made amino acids. For the new approach, both teams of researchers based their work on so-called genetically recoded organisms (GROs). These are bacterial genomes that have had all instances of a particular codon replaced by another. Codon refers to part of the genetic code that ‘codes’ for amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for making proteins.
Essentially the groups have designed replacement codons to incorporate a synthetic amino acid; they have also and engineered proteins essential to the microorganism to rely upon the artificial amino acid for proper function. Although the research groups have come up with similar methods they arrived at these independently.
The reasoning behind this is that microbial cells will perish in environments lacking the synthetic amino acid. This means that if the GMOs break out of the laboratory and into the general environment then the organisms would, in theory, not be able to survive and thus ‘contamination’ of crops and other organisms would not occur.
Talking with The Scientist, Farren Isaacs at Yale University (who led one of the studies) is quoted as saying that the new approach: “really addresses a long-standing problem in biotechnology, by engineering a really compelling solution to engineering biocontainments or biological barriers that limit the spread and survival of organisms in natural environments, and along the way also endow these organisms with new and expanded biological function.”
The researchers summarize their approach as “engineering biocontainments or biological barriers that limit the spread and survival of organisms in natural environments.”
The two research papers are:
D. Mandell et al, “Biocontainment of genetically modified organisms by synthetic protein design,” Nature 2014.
A.J. Rovner et al., “Recoded organisms engineered to depend on synthetic amino acids,” Nature, 2014.
More about Genetically modified organisms, Genetically modified food, Gmos
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