Apr 20, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Reprogramming the World: Putting a Kill Switch in GMOs

Jan 23, 2015 02:38 PM EST

Scientists across the world have begun playing God by creating genetically modified organisms, otherwise known as GMOs.  With this research comes the fear that some of these "enhanced" organisms will have the capability of ending life as we know it on Earth.  To that end, scientists have been working for new ways to eliminate the potential threat these modified organisms could have towards nature and human beings.

To that end, two separate teams of researchers have designed a "kill switch" system into their organisms that would automatically eliminate the GMOs if they were to escape.

In two different studies published in the journal Nature, both teams found new ways to make a modified strain of E. coli dependent on artificial nutrients.  The end result is that the GMO cannot leave the lab or it would quickly lose access to these nutrients that it can only receive inside the lab, resulting in its death.

But this isn't exactly a new idea.  Researchers working with pathogenic bacteria have forced nutrient dependency on the organisms in order to ensure an outbreak was impossible.  However, it has been observed that once they are deprived of the necessary nutrients, they can still mutate to live without the synthetic nutrients.

In an effort to stop this mutation for occurring, researchers inserted genetic information coded for dependence 49 times throughout E. coli's genome.  This ensures that only a perfect mutation would result in a loss of dependency.  The chances of this type of mutation actually happening are, according to scientists, slim to none.

"Our strains, to the extent that we can test them, won't escape," Dan Mandell, a synthetic biologist at Harvard Medical School, told Nature magazine after the studies were published.

"This is really the culmination of a decade of work," Mandell says. He added that with their success, scientists can be more bold about groundbreaking experimentation with far less worry that their creations could escape and wreak havoc on the natural world.

This addition of man-made GMOs could, in principle, "encode new proteins made from new, unnatural amino acids - which would give us greater power than ever to tailor protein therapeutics and diagnostics and laboratory reagents to have desired functions," lead researcher of the other study, Floyd Romesberg says.

However, if one of these man-made GMOs did escape and interacted with other microbes in nature, it could also create trouble we can't possibly imagine.  That is why scientists developed the kill switch in the first place, but still the threat remains.

While this is considered a huge breakthrough, you likely won't be seeing this used on GMOs we are already familiar with such as crops like corn and soy.

"I can see no need for this in crop plants that are anyway risk-assessed and approved for field cultivation, and use in food and feed," GMO plant biologist of Rothamsted Research who was not associated with the studies, Huw Jones says.

He added that implementing this system into the tried-and-true would simply hike costs and set production back in a world that needs to be fed. However, keeping new GMO crops contained until they are fully tested... that could never be a bad idea.

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