GMOs on lockdown

November 1, 2015
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2015

drawing of GMOBerkeley engineers may have found a way to keep genetically modified organisms safely under lock and key. The trick involves tweaking essential genes so that they require the addition of the molecule benzothiazole to function. Working with a strain of E. coli commonly used in research labs, bioengineering professor J. Christopher Anderson and researcher Gabriel Lopez engineered five genes essential to bacteria’s survival. They mutated the genes, rendering them inactive (i.e., locked) unless the molecule benzothiazole (the key) was added.

By unlocking a single gene with a single chemical molecule, they improved the organism’s viability 100 millionfold. Combining several gene locks improved viability 10 billionfold. This cheap and easy method of preventing the accidental spread of genetically modified organisms has a range of potential applications, such as in organisms engineered to treat diseases within the human body, which should be activated only when needed.

Read more: Scientists use molecular ‘lock and key’ for potential control of GMOs