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Scientists find new way to corral genetically engineered bacteria

Reliance on human-made molecules keeps useful bacteria from escaping into nature

5:26pm, January 21, 2015
E. coli

DEPENDENT BY DESIGN  E. coli, like those shown here in false color, and other bacteria are used to manufacture drugs, chemicals and fuels. Newly engineered strains of E. coli can only survive with access to human-made molecules.

Scientists have engineered a new way to genetically modify organisms so they’re less likely to spread uncontrollably in the wild and wreak havoc. By creating bacteria that require molecules not found in nature to survive, the scientists have set the stage for a safer way to use genetically modified bacteria to make medicines, fuels and other useful chemicals.

Two teams of researchers separately used E. coli as a test case, engineering the bacterium to depend on human-made versions of amino acids, the researchers report online January 21 in Nature. Bacteria use amino acids to make proteins.

The new method drastically cuts the likelihood of genetically engineered bacteria escaping into the environment, says Floyd Romesberg, a synthetic biologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. The dependence on human-made amino acids “really creates a firewall between the cell’s life and its natural environment.”

One group

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