Scientists develop biological safety lock for containment of modified organisms

Researchers have developed E. coli bacteria that can't survive without specially-supplied synthetic amino acids (Image: Shutterstock)

It's been the premise of many a sci-fi/horror movie ... a genetically-modified organism is created in the lab to help the human race, but instead it gets loose and wreaks havoc in the outside world. Well, scientists from Harvard and Yale are working to make sure that such a scenario can't take place – at least, not with one of the bacteria most commonly used in biotech research. Teams from both universities have produced genetically-altered E. coli bacteria that can't live without special amino acids, which can only be obtained from a lab.

In separate studies, both teams used an already-modified strain of E. coli developed by a group led by Harvard's Prof. George Church. First announced in 2013, it was officially "the world’s first genomically recoded organism."

Using different methods, the teams further modified that strain to incorporate synthetic amino acids in numerous locations throughout its genome. Although the bacteria relies on these acids in order to survive, it can't synthesize them on its own, nor can it find them in the environment – only labs working with the modified E. coli can produce the acids.

This means that if the bacteria were to escape from the lab, it wouldn't survive for long.

While it may be technically possible that the bacteria could evolve a means of synthesizing a substitute for the synthetic amino acids, it's reportedly highly unlikely. The Harvard E. coli are dependent on the acids as the result of 49 genetic changes, and Church believes that the chances of the bacteria being able to undo all of those changes without also acquiring any harmful mutations is "incredibly slim."

Additionally, the bacteria developed at Harvard currently rely on three separate amino acids, making survival outside of the lab that much less likely. Church would like to make the technology even safer, by further increasing the number of acids required by the bacteria.

Papers on the Harvard and Yale research were recently published in the journal Nature.

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