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Scientists Create ‘Genetic Firewall’ for New Forms of Life

A year after creating organisms that use a genetic code different from every other living thing, two teams of scientists have achieved another "synthetic biology" milestone: They created bacteria that cannot survive without a specific artificial chemical, potentially overcoming a major obstacle to wider use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

The advance, reported in two papers published by Nature, offers what one scientist calls a "genetic firewall" to achieve biocontainment, a means of ensuring that GMOs cannot live outside a lab or other confined environment. Although the two labs accomplished this in bacteria, "there is no fundamental barrier" to applying the technique to crops and animals, said Harvard biologist George Church, who led one of the studies.

If the technique succeeds, it could be used in microbes that are engineered for applications such as producing yogurt and cheese, synthesizing industrial chemicals and biofuels, cleaning up toxic waste, and manufacturing drugs.

Experts not connected with the work were impressed. The papers point the way toward putting GMOs "on a very tight leash, one that is meant to be unbreakable," Michigan State University microbiologist Richard Lenski told The Associated Press in an email.

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In addition to Church, the authors of "Biocontainment of Genetically Modified Organisms by Synthetic Protein Design" include Daniel Mandell, Marc Lajoie, Michael Mee, Ryo Takeuchi, Gleb Kuznetsov, Julie Norville, Christopher Gregg and Barry Stoddard. Authors of the other Nature paper, "Recoded Organisms Engineered to Depend on Synthetic Amino Acids," include Alexis Rovner, Adrian Haimovich, Spencer Katz, Zhe Li, Michael Grome, Brandon Gassaway, Miriam Amiram, Jaymin Patel, Ryan Gallagher, Jesse Rinehart and Farren Isaacs.