ASU‘s David Guston was a guest on NPR’s Science Friday yesterday weighing in on E. coli bacteria engineered with genetic kill switches to prevent escape of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. The milestone was very big news, stemming from a study published in Nature a few days ago. The study involved the design of E. coli bacteria that can only survive in the presence of a synthetically engineered amino acid. Without this amino acid, as a food source, the bacteria dies. Given the amino acid is not found in nature, one can control where GMOs containing the synthetic safeguard should live and thrive. According to Daniel Mandell (the study’s lead, also featured on NPR with Guston), the E. coli bacteria was tested and found to be unable to evolve to avoid dependency on the synthetic amino acid.
On a parallel, the study indicates a potential significant breakthrough for GMO crops in terms of curbing or eliminating fears of cross-pollination of GMO seeds onto organic or conventional farms. Nonetheless, Mandell points out that such a development may be a few years off in that the genome of a plant is ∼nine times the size of a bacteria genome resulting in a technological challenge to increase the size of the synthetic DNA to be created in order to be effective. However, Mandell is quick to point out that there is no reason not to believe the same science may one day be applied to crops. Guston, when asked about likely public reaction or reassurance provided by this novel application of genetic engineering, is himself a little skeptical, noting that at present, it is unlikely to be the silver bullet. For instance, Guston considers the potential for the synthetic amino acid to persist in the environment to be one area of concern. Another issue, says Guston, relates to benefit perceptions — in terms of how people perceive where the benefit of a technology goes. In terms of GMOs [crops], Guston claims that in many cases, the profits of plant technologies have accrued to the producers, not the farmer — which is debatable, plus, profits make up only a portion of the total benefits derived from GMO farming. In this instance, given the potential for abatement of cross-pollination, there appears to be a case to be made to move the public to not reject this particular advancement.
Among other capacities, David Guston serves as Director of ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society, which on occasion co-sponsors events organized by the Center for Law, Science & Innovation, such as the Center’s upcoming Third Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics, May 26-28, 2015 in Scottsdale, Arizona.