As we venture deeper into the era of GMOs and synthetic life, it's critical that we develop safeguards to prevent the contamination of natural systems. To that end, researchers have devised a clever solution to ensure this never happens – at least in GM bacteria.

The solution, the details of which now appear in two separate Nature papers (here and here), shows that a strain of E. coli bacteria can be engineered to be dependent on synthetic nutrients. The bacteria cannot self-produce these essential compounds, and they don't exist in nature. In a controlled lab setting, the bacteria would be replenished with these artificial nutrients; should the bacteria escape to the wild, however, it would have no way of surviving on its own.

Writing in Discovery Magazine, Kari Lydersen tells us more:

In separate projects, teams led by Yale molecular biologist Farren Isaacs and Harvard molecular geneticist George Church have genetically modified E. coli so that it is totally dependent on synthetic amino acids. And in both cases that need is built in to multiple parts of the bacteria's genome – 49 times in the Harvard study – so that the likelihood that the bacteria would evolve to overcome the restriction is unlikely. And both strains showed an undetectably small escape rate – the number of E. coli able to survive without being fed the synthetic amino acid.

Hmmm, why does the phrase "small escape rate" in conjunction with "bacteria" make me nervous?

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At any rate, the researchers also built in resistance to a number of viruses, which will be great when working to prevent blights that can devastate food and pharma manufacturing.

In terms of applications, the GM bacteria could be used by drug developers and in dairy operations (including the production of cheese and yoghurt). The researchers also hope that the concept could be used to create synthetic organisms to clean up polluted sites such as landfills and oil spills — a process known as bioremediation.

Read the entire article at Discovery News.

Top image of E. coli via Agricultural Research Service