Biology

Scientists develop biological safety lock for containment of modified organisms

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

Sources: Harvard University, Yale University

5 comments
christopher
Hmm - I'd like to see some numbers on their idea of "highly unlikely". A friend of mine modified e-coli to glow in the dark, and it only lasted a few generations before the future generations got rid of that useless "trait".
There's 25 million of those babies in just a single drop; that's a staggeringly large number all work at once, to "evolve out" any restrictions placed on their survival.
Chizzy
Anyone else find it hilarious that Jurassic park (the book) used this same technique?
Nik
The phrase 'highly unlikely' has been used before by scientists, and usually preceded disasters. The only word that should be used is 'impossible' but even that cannot be guaranteed, given that there are always unknown factors. Its not so long ago that scientists were using the phrase 'junk DNA' and then they found it wasn't 'junk,' but actually had important functions. Bacteria have had billions of years to develop, humans have been tinkering with DNA for just a few decades, guess which has the most experience?
Smitty Jl
Remember scientists thru out history have claimed to be right and know everything. It's staggering how many common day to day things were considered impossible 100 yrs ago. A hundred years before that they would have been considered witch craft.
Arf
I thought about Jurassic Park, chizzy, but this is actually one step better because the amino acid these bacteria need is a purely synthetic one, while the dinos in JP needed but couldn't produce the existing amino acid lysine.