CRISPR ‘kill switch’ developed to stop GMOs running amok

20 May 2015

In a bid to prevent catastrophic damage caused by a genetically modified organism (GMO) accidentally entering an environment where it could cause havoc, a new ‘kill switch’ has been developed to prevent that happening.

While synthetic biology (synbio) is widely regarded as advancing biotechnology significantly in the coming years, there still remains the potential for a GMO to go rogue accidentally, which, if left untreated, could cause significant damage to an environment with no natural defence to this new threat.

Now, however, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has published a paper detailing its creation of a new technique of placing its chemical creation – CRISPR – into a gene segment.

According to, CRISPR can be used to take out gene segments without replacement (traditionally segments need to be replaced), and can be programmed to recognise certain particular sugars.

The second phase of the CRISPR system then allows it to be programmed further to snip out the original GMO that had been modified, thereby returning it to its original state.

The researchers’ example showed a modified sample of E.coli, which, when CRISPR was designed to recognise arabinose molecules, snipped out these gene segments that led to 99pc of the test samples dying completely within two hours.

Aside from preventing any potential environmental damage, the researchers also say it could be used by pharmaceutical companies to protect trade secrets by killing its samples before they could be transferred to a competitor.

DNA sequencing image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic