By rewriting the DNA of Escherichia coli so that the bacterium requires a synthetic amino acid to produce its essential proteins, two research teams may have paved the way to ensure that genetically modified organisms don’t escape into the environment.
They also set the stage for expanding the use of genetically modified organisms in applications outside the lab, Isaacs adds. For example, he says, the bacteria could be used as the “basis for designer probiotics for diseases that originate in the gut of our bodies, or for specialized microorganisms that clean up landfills or oil spills.”
The teams performed extensive tests to see whether the newly engineered bacteria could evolve ways to sidestep the need for synthetic amino acids. Whenever the microbes managed the feat, the researchers tweaked the DNA until the bacteria depended solely on the synthetic amino acids.