Creating a ‘genetic firewall’ for GMOs

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LOS ANGELES — Synthetic amino acids may one day allow scientists to create “genetic firewalls” that prevent GMO crops or animals from escaping into the wild and causing environmental damage, according to Harvard and Yale researchers.

On Wednesday, scientists announced that they had genetically engineered bacteria whose very survival depended on lab-formulated amino acids. By “locking in” this synthetic nutritional requirement, researchers said the bacteria would quickly die if they escaped their carefully controlled environment and entered the world at large.

“I don’t want to be alarmist or anything, but I think the point is that these organisms do spread,” said George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor.

The altered bacteria, which Church and his colleagues dubbed genomically recoded organisms, or GROs, were described in a pair of studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Genetically altered bacteria are used to produce a growing number of products, including pharmaceutical proteins, such as insulin; dairy items, such as yogurt; and polymers used to create textiles.

While it is much easier to alter the genetic coding of bacteria than it is to alter plant and animal genomes, Church said that it was plausible that the technique could be extend to more complicated GMOs, such as crops.

Church and Farren Isaacs — an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, and the senior author of one of the studies — said their work was motivated by the concern that modified organisms could enter the wild and out-compete natural species. It is this concern that has caused some to heavily criticize the use of GMOs in industry and agriculture.

“It’s a scenario,” Church told reporters. “You want to get ahead of these things, rather than wait until you have a problem.”

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