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Safety Switch for Genetically Modified Engineered Organisms

When people hear the word bacteria, they usually associate such microorganisms to the cause of many different kinds of diseases. But what if these microscopic life forms have been genetically modified and a safety switch has been created to prevent them from spreading and causing illnesses?

Scientists at Yale and Harvard have been busily working on modifying the genetic foundation of a microorganism known as Escherichia coli, or E. coli. They have been manipulating its genes to an extent that they are able to rewrite its genetic language. This means that these researchers are not just transferring a gene from one microorganism to another but they are actually altering and manipulating the basic functional and physical unit of the organism.

The very goal of this genetic engineering process is to make an organism, in this case the E. coli, safer especially when it is used by pharmaceutical laboratories and companies to manufacture drugs and other medications. The modification also aims to protect the organisms from viruses that are capable of damaging their protein structures resulting in destruction of pharmaceutical productions.

To understand how the researchers are able to manipulate and modify the genetic structure of the E. coli, a little review of basic biology is recommended. Every enzyme and protein in our body is built from an organic compound known as amino acids. These compounds are considered to be the building blocks of life for they are used as a source of energy and they help in breaking down food, repairing body tissues, and performing many other important bodily functions.

George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, pointed out that there are only 20 amino acids existing in nature. However, they manipulated the genes of a bacterium wherein it requires the microorganism to be in need of an additional amino acid, one that is not found in nature but created in the lab. Church further stated that their bioengineering tools and gene-manipulating methods led to the creation of a bacterium, the modified E. coli, with a different genetic structure from all other life forms in the planet.

Because of such unique genetic feature, the modified E. coli cannot easily swap genes like other microorganisms usually do. This means that the E. coli cannot get rid of specific traits and pick up new ones in order to survive. They cannot mutate like what most microorganisms do to adapt to an environment and thrive.

This is because the modified genetic structure requires that unnatural building block. It is dependent on the synthetic amino acid. Due to that dependence and the unavailability of the needed amino acid, the modified bacterium cannot survive once it managed to get out into a new environment.

Church confidently stated that with that safety switch, there is no way the engineered E. coli can multiply in such number that can cause a disease. And even if it is cultured in laboratories for pharmaceutical purposes, it is still safe. Thanks to technology and bioengineering research and development that made its modified genetic feature possible.

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