Monday, January 26, 2015

Preventing the Spread of Bioengineered Bacteria

Bacteria have been bioengineered (genetically modified) for all sorts of reasons. Some are used to make pharmaceuticals or chemicals; others can degrade specific toxic substances. And although it hasn't happened yet, scientists are concerned that sooner or later, one of these bacteria will get out of the laboratory or industrial plant and cause disease or damage the environment. Could such an accident be prevented?

Scientists at Yale University think they have found a way. They insert a genetic code into bacteria that encodes for a synthetic amino acid that is not present in the environment naturally. That way, the bacteria are totally dependent on that particular amino acid for growth and reproduction. Any bacteria that escape into the environment simply wouldn't survive or reproduce.

Most bioengineered bacteria are used within enclosed environments, such as a research laboratory or an industrial production facility. But one could envision how making a bioengineered bacteria totally dependent on a synthetic amino acid might allow the bacteria to be used effective outside the laboratory as well, without fear of the bacteria getting out of control. For example, bacteria that had been modified to degrade oil at an oil spill site could be restricted to that site by spraying the synthetic amino acid only on the location of the spill.

It's an interesting idea.

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