Scientists develop GMOs that can’t run amok in the wild

22 Jan 2015

Two teams of US scientists are claiming to have developed a genetically modified organism (GMO) – commonly used in farming for better growth – that is designed to not spread in the wild.

Despite their widespread use in the agricultural industry to boost yields of crops, increase the fertility of farm animals and protect their livelihoods through chemical processes, GMO remains an acronym that carries a negative stigma as one that will wreak havoc on the environment.

However, in recent years, a number of research groups and start-ups in the field of synthetic biology have been attempting to shake this off and show those throwing accusations of ‘playing with god’ what can be done with this branch of science.

Now, scientists from Harvard and Yale universities in the US said they have used synthetic biology to modify a strain of bacteria that can only feed on a synthetically created amino acid and if put into the wild, will die.

Further uses in pharmaceuticals

During testing, according to Nature, the teams tested this new modified strain several times over hundreds of billions of different cells over the course of a 20-day period and found it simply couldn’t survive in the wild.

This will no doubt ease the fears of critics of GMO crops and science who fear that if left to run amok, a particular GMO creation could replicate a scenario in nature similar to scenes from a Hollywood zombie film where they infect and kill everything around them.

Aside from agriculture, the teams believe this form of ‘bio-containment’ could have significant applications in pharmaceuticals, as well as allowing for the timed release of particular chemicals into the patient’s bloodstream.

“Establishing safety and security from the get go will really enable broad and open use of engineered organisms,” said Farren Isaacs, a synthetic biologist at Yale University and leader of the Yale research team.

Microbes image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic