Who Needs a Synthetic Biological "Safety Lock"?

Posted by Pete Shanks February 4, 2015
Biopolitical Times
image of 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.

For one, who benefits? Says researcher Isaacs:

[A]n intellectual property incentive exists for companies to develop the biotechnology further, because they could secure the use of their proprietary bacteria by mixing a growth cocktail only they would know.

According to Kari Lydersen at Discover:

Church noted that the viral resistance could be an incentive to "sweeten the offer" and encourage companies to use "safe" GMOs. The technique could also provide intellectual property protection for industrial, pharmaceutical or food companies, since they could make their own GMOs dependent on specific synthetic amino acids, and other companies would have trouble replicating those modified organisms without the "key." Such built-in IP protection could actually encourage collaboration between different companies, Isaacs said.

Church also told Adam Rutherford of The Guardian that one of his goals is "mollifying campaigners," adding that "if they don't like this, we'll ask what they would prefer, and keep going. We want to get this right."

One lesson of GM agriculture is that the technology has been used primarily to benefit the corporations that sell the products to farmers who become tied, as with a leash, to modified seeds. It is not hard to see this "biocontainment" strategy similarly being used for the benefit of big companies rather than society as a whole. It may be a nifty trick, but is it really what we need?

Previously on Biopolitical Times: