Bioethics Blogs

Who Needs a Synthetic Biological “Safety Lock”?

E. coli

Two papers published simultaneously in Nature on January 21 describe a novel strategy for biocontainment (1, 2). Both teams, using different methods, engineered a strain of E. Coli to be dependent on a synthetic amino acid that does not exist in the wild; if the bug leaves the lab, it quickly dies.

George Church’s Harvard lab produced one of the papers and previously nurtured the career of Yale’s Farren Isaacs, lead author of the other; they had both worked on a related 2013 paper about “genomically recoded organisms” as well as the seminal 2011 paper on genome-wide codon replacement. The Yale team also published a paper on genetic safeguards in Nucleic Acids Research. The ever-ebullient Church told reporters:

“We do consider this a new class of organism. It’s not just a new species. In a way it’s a new kingdom.”

An accompanying Nature editorial described this as keeping the genetically modified organism “on a leash” and added: “Pull too tightly on the leash and it turns into a noose.” For a less metaphorical explanation, see GEN, Ars Technica, Ricki Lewis (scroll down past some whining about GMO activists), Nature News, and the Harvard press release. Tabitha M. Powledge has a summary of reactions at her PLoS blog.

There is at least a long way to go before we see useful products relying on this containment strategy. It is certainly possible that it may not scale effectively, especially (as Helen Wallace told The New York Times) when “combined with the genetic changes needed for industrial use.” But even if the technology does reach the market, many serious questions will remain.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.