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Scientists develop strategy to contain GMOs to the lab

"It really addresses a longstanding problem in biotechnology," researcher Farren Isaacs said.

By Brooks Hays
Scientists develop strategy to contain GMOs to the lab
The majority of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. File Photo by Mike WIlliams/UPI | License Photo

BOSTON, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- The term GMO, short for "genetically modified organism," comes with a lot crippling baggage -- it's a bloated word full of foreboding futures. The truth is, GMOs are already everywhere. But even if their dangers are often exaggerated, they don't come without risks.

Some GMOs do have the potential to disrupt the natural order of things -- cause havoc in rivers and other ecosystems. To prevent that, researchers at Harvard have developed a safety mechanism to ensure GMOs stay where they're supposed to be.

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"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," George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, explained in a recent press release.

GMOs are more than just mutant corn strains designed to withstand high levels of pesticides. They're mosquitos engineered to not spread malaria. They're insulin- or hormone-producing bacteria. They're in laundry detergents and cosmetics. And keeping them where they're supposed to be is an important job. Now, scientists have a better way of doing so.

Church and his colleagues have found a way to install a sort of disarming or disabling mechanism in GMOs, so these organisms can't live where they're not supposed to. More specifically, researchers have found a way to install a unique strain of E. coli in GMOs. The genome of this harmless version of the bacteria has been altered so that it's addicted -- entirely reliant on -- an unnatural synthetic amino acid, only produced in the lab setting and not found in the outside world.

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Thus, GMOs outfitted with this uniquely designed strain of E. coli wouldn't be able to exist without their amino acid fix. Without that fix, the escaped organism will die.

"It really addresses a longstanding problem in biotechnology," researcher Farren Isaacs told The New York Times. "[It is a] really compelling solution to engineering biocontainment, or biological barriers that limit the spread and survival of organisms in natural environments."

The new containment strategy is detailed in two papers, both published this week in the journal Nature.

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