Scientists Figure Out How to Stop GMOs from Ruining the Planet (Sort Of)

Harvard and Yale scientists say they have created “genetic firewalls” of sorts that have the ability to stop the spread of GMOs into the wild where they can cross-pollinate with other crops, causing environmental damage and jeopardizing crop diversity.

The scientists say they have done this by creating a dependency trait in GMO bacteria that relies on specific amino acids also developed in a lab. Without these amino acids, the bacteria would not be able to reproduce.

“By ‘locking in’ this synthetic nutritional requirement, researchers said the bacteria would quickly die if they escaped their carefully controlled environment and entered the world at large,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Although, the scientists acknowledge that over generations, mutations could develop that would allow the bacteria to survive without the lab-formulated amino acids.

The research was published in the recent issue of the journal Nature. And while it only pertains currently to bacteria, which is easier to manipulate than common GMO crops or animals, the scientists say it’s a conceivable step closer to making that a reality as well, which could protect wild plants and animals from becoming compromised by GMOs. It could also protect farmers from lawsuits, like those initiated by Monsanto against farmers where crop drift sent the company’s patented GMO seeds onto non-GMO farmland, or farmers saved seeds from previous harvest. Companies like Monsanto with seed patents do not allow undocumented crops to be grown without contracts and payments made for use of the seeds.

According to the Times, the researchers said their work was “motivated by the concern that modified organisms could enter the wild and out-compete natural species.”

“It’s a scenario,” one of the researchers told reporters. “You want to get ahead of these things, rather than wait until you have a problem.” The researchers say they consider the altered bacteria—a strain of e. coli—a “new class of organism,” and have hopes of creating virus resistant bacteria as well.

Already, genetically modified material has been found pollinating wild crops. And while not yet approved for sale in the U.S., genetically modified fish that would be raised in ocean fish farms have environmentalists concerned about the impact escaped GMO fish could have if they breed with wild fish stocks.

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Science lab image via Shutterstock