Is Synthetic Biology Now Safe?

Posted on 06 December 2015 by Jerry

A couple of years ago a team led by George Church at Harvard Medical School, which included Farren Isaacs now a synthetic biologist at Yale University, made a strain of Escherichia coli that abandoned an old instruction to terminate protein synthesis and had a new instruction to make a synthetic amino acid within its proteins. It required this new strain of E-coli to look for the new amino acid or die as too reliant on the synthetic amino acid.

Now two teams independently have produced other genetically modified bacteria that are dependent upon amino acids that are not naturally occurring in the environment. Both bacteria will die if not nourished by the synthetic amino acids that of course only occur in a laboratory. This offers a protection should either bacteria escape the laboratory environment.

Dan Mandell, leader of the Harvard Medical School team (with George Church) is quoted in a January 22, 2015 article in Nature magazine as saying, “Our strains, to the extent that we can test them, won’t escape.” The article goes on to state, “The microbes also do not swap their engineered DNA with natural counterparts because they no longer speak life’s shared biochemical language.”

The article continued that the Mandell (and Church) team at Harvard started with protein structures “and added elements to help integrate and accommodate the artificial amino acids.” To the contrary, the Isaacs team from Yale began with genomic sequencing looking for sites in the proteins where microbes could use synthetic amino acids with no detrimental effect on the microbe.

“Establishing safety and security from the get-go will really enable broad and open use of engineered organisms,” stated Farren Isaacs, a Yale synthetic biologist. Farren Isaacs who led the second study was quoted from the same Nature magazine article.

In the original article from Yale that appeared online on on January 21, 2015 the report says, “Here we describe the construction of a series of genomically recoded organisms (GROs) whose growth is restricted by the expression of multiple essential genes that depend on exogenously supplied synthetic amino acids (sAAs).” Farren Isaacs believes in this containment so much that he and Alexis J. Rovner applied for a provisional patent at the US Patent and Trademark Office. A “Corrigendum: Recoded organisms engineered to depend on synthetic amino acids” was filed in conjunction with this report. This filing also identifies Isaacs as a founder of enEvolv, Inc.

Isaacs was also quoted by BBC News on January 21, 2015 as saying “What we’re seeing here is an important proof of concept that re-coding genomes and engineering dependence on synthetic amino acids is technically feasible and in not just E coli but other micro-organisms and multicellular organisms such as plants.”

It would appear it is now possible to develop synthetically modified organisms that would be safer than today’s synthetic organisms. They are dependent on a continuous supply of synthetic amino acids for continued sustenance in all environments. Whether these developments are actually used by other researchers and companies in their products remains to be seen. It is safe to say we should applaud this research as a breakthrough that has the safety of the populous and its environments in mind.

We must increase and continue regulatory oversight over this synthetic biology area. We need caution from the government, private entrepreneurs and venture capitalists concerning synthetic biology experiments. But we should feel heartened that progress is being made and scientists are looking for ways to contain the resulting synthetic organisms.

Use the following links to obtain additional information or access the source articles used for this report.


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