Environment

Star Trek-inspired device to detect rogue genetically modified organisms in the wild

Star Trek-inspired device to d...
Students test the conditions of water for traces of GMO proteins, using Rice University's Star Trek-inspired device
Students test the conditions of water for traces of GMO proteins, using Rice University's Star Trek-inspired device
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Students test the conditions of water for traces of GMO proteins, using Rice University's Star Trek-inspired device
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Students test the conditions of water for traces of GMO proteins, using Rice University's Star Trek-inspired device
Scott Egan, an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University, is leading the project
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Scott Egan, an assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University, is leading the project
The original LTS sent results to a monitor in the Ruggiero-Tanner Lab at the University of Notre Dame – the Egan Lab is adapting a portable version of the device developed at Notre Dame to test for signs of genetically engineered plants and animals in the environment
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The original LTS sent results to a monitor in the Ruggiero-Tanner Lab at the University of Notre Dame – the Egan Lab is adapting a portable version of the device developed at Notre Dame to test for signs of genetically engineered plants and animals in the environment
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Although controversial, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can have a tremendous benefits in terms of preventing disease, fighting emerging "superbugs" and producing food. But a GMO that "escapes" its intended environment may end up wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystem. To combat this, a team at Rice University is developing a device, inspired by a Star Trek tricorder, that can scan water samples to detect the presence of GMO-associated proteins in the wild.

The researchers use the example of Bt-corn, a species of corn that's been modified to express the protein Bt delta endotoxin. This grants the vegetable a natural pesticide against European corn borer caterpillars, without harming most other insects and animals — including humans.

"It's a wonderful invention that lets us produce more corn per unit area," explains Scott Egan, lead researcher on the project. "But then that corn and the detritus — the leaves, stems and roots — get into the creek system. And lo and behold, a very close relative to the herbivores that attack the corn is the caddisfly, which lives within the aquatic system."

As useful as that protein is in controlled environments, concentrations of it in creeks and waterways could have a negative impact on caddisflies, which in turn could disrupt the entire aquatic ecosystem. To minimize that harm, the project aims to study what effects GMOs can have on natural systems, as well as develop ways to detect their presence and concentration.

"It's meant as a tool that can be used in any situation to detect and quantify, and get that information back to the stakeholders in the field or Department of Natural Resources folks who care about whether certain chemicals are floating around," says Egan.

Trekkies will remember the tricorder, a device used by the Enterprise crew to scan and analyze alien worlds and lifeforms. The team says the Star Trek gadget inspired them to develop their own device called a light transmission spectrometer (LTS), which currently detects proteins that indicate the presence of GMOs, and soon will be able to determine their quantity too.

The LTS works by binding nanoparticles to target DNA or antibodies to proteins from GMOs – be they plants or animals – which allows them to be detected and quantified. Currently, the device can detect the target DNA if it's present at a concentration of 50 copies per milliliter of water, but the team hopes to get that down to about three copies per milliliter, which is something other lab-based methods can manage.

To put the LTS through its paces, the researchers will test it in a series of controlled environments with increasing complexity, beginning in paddling pools, then moving up to synthetic streams and fully modeled aquatic ecosystems complete with creeks, ponds and wetlands.

The team says that eventually the device's ability to detect low concentrations of DNA could even be used by scientists searching for life beyond Earth, by studying extraterrestrial samples for signs of the building blocks of life.

Source: Rice University

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3 comments
BarryDisch
Maybe it might be best to check if these GMOs first have side effects first before we put them out there.
Rocky Stefano
@Barry, you mean like the reports Gilles-Eric Séralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen published in 2012 linking genetically modified (GM) maize causes serious disease in rats? Money is all that matters. They don't care if people die, they KNOW people will die and have even set aside the funding for that litigation. Its pennies to them compared to the billions they make worldwide. If the CEO's son or daughter died it would be much different but I'm sure they don't eat their own dogfood.
SamuelInez
False GMO's do not cause cancer. Peer reviewed link below. "The recent report claiming that gmfs are causally associated with cancer development in rats has been debunked by informed opinion: genetically tumourprone rats were used; a spurious construct and research protocol was followed; and the statistical approach used did not satisfy confounding factors5. The publication was apparently not subject to satisfactory objective refereeing, and certain tainted financial interests were also operative. All the foregoing factors skewed the results, rendering them invalid and not significant4,5." https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3615871/