Two papers appeared in the latest issue of Nature—one from Farren Isaacs’ group and the other from George Church and colleagues—that presented, developed, and demonstrated a strategy for limiting the spread of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the event that they are accidentally released or deliberately applied to the environment.
My Involvement with GMO Discussions in the 1980s
I was actively involved in discussions about environmental applications and field testing of genetically engineered organisms back in the 1980s. As a postdoc in 1984, I had a short letter in Nature where I suggested a containment strategy for an early proposed application of genetically modified “ice-minus” bacteria. Later that year I attended a small meeting on environmental applications of GMOs at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and a short report was published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. As faculty member at UC Irvine in 1986, I served as a consultant on a report for the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress. I also co-organized and moderated a lively public debate on the benefits and risks of genetically engineered organisms between Jerry Caulder, who was CEO of a biotech company, and the distinguished ecologist Daniel Simberloff, an expert on invasive species.
At that time, one of the arguments—the “excess baggage hypothesis”—for the safety of GMOs was that genetically engineered functions would impose a metabolic burden and thereby reduce the fitness of the organisms, so that they wouldn’t be good competitors in nature. While that argument made some sense as a trend or tendency, it didn’t seem likely that it would apply in every possible case given the potential for new environments and/or compensatory adaptations to favor novel functions. In 1988, I wrote a review for Trends in Ecology & Evolution with a postdoc, Toai Nguyen, on the “Stability of recombinant DNA and its effects on fitness” that made these points.
As a result of my interest in and involvement with these issues, I was asked to serve on two expert panels—one convened by the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the other by the National Research Council (NRC) arm of the National Academy of Sciences—that wrote lengthy reports, both published in 1989. In both reports, the committees tried to emphasize that one needed to consider two different issues. (1) What, if any, were the potential problems that might be caused by the release of particular GMO? (2) In the event that some problem actually did arise, would the GMO (or its engineered genes) survive and possibly spread in the environment? Or would the problem be resolved by halting further applications of the GMO, because they would then simply die off?
(These panels were hard work, but through them I met some great scientists, including Jim Tiedje and Rita Colwell among many others.)
After that extensive involvement with this science-policy issue in the 1980s, my research tended toward more basic questions in the years that followed. Meanwhile, of course, there has remained substantial scientific, commercial, and public interest in the methods and applications of genetic engineering. The two recent papers in Nature reflect the latest efforts to ensure the safety of GMOs by putting them on a tight leash.
My Thoughts on the Recent Papers
I was asked to comment on the Nature papers by Malcolm Ritter, a science reporter for the AP, and he briefly (and accurately) quoted me in a short news piece that appeared yesterday. In light of a question about my thoughts on Twitter, I thought I’d share my full remarks here:
Using genetically modified organisms in the environment raises a couple of intersecting issues. One concerns the effects those organisms have. Of course, GMOs are intended to provide some benefit—say, for bioenergy or agriculture—but in some cases the GMOs might have secondary or unanticipated harmful effects. If these harmful effects occur, and if they outweigh the benefits, then one would like to be able to recall the GMOs from the environment—sort of like recalling cars when some problem is discovered after they’ve been sold. The challenge is that GMOs are organisms, they are alive and can reproduce, and so they won’t necessarily just go away if one stops using them. Over the years, different strategies have been proposed to ensure that GMOs will, in fact, just die off after they’ve done their job, but these strategies have had holes, such as the possibility that evolution might break whatever leash the scientists put on the GMOs so that they could be recalled.
These two papers, though, point the way towards putting GMOs on a very tight leash, one that is meant to be unbreakable, by changing the genetic code of an organism so that its replication becomes dependent on certain synthetic building blocks—amino acids—that aren’t found in nature. So by applying these molecules along with the GMO in some environment, the GMOs can replicate and do their job. But if the synthetic amino acids aren’t supplied, then the GMOs won’t be able to replicate further after they’ve run out, and so that provides a leash that should rein the GMOs in if there is some problem. Of course, there are a lot of technical challenges to pulling this off, because you can’t make the organisms so weak that they can’t do their intended functions.
And of course, extending this approach from microorganisms—the subject of these papers—to crop plants would raise all sorts of additional questions about nutritional value and safety. Those are different issues and not what these papers are about.
Coda: Does this approach ensure containment of a GMO? Probably not. There aren’t many guarantees in life, and evolution has a history (billions of years, in fact) of finding clever solutions that might not occur to engineers and scientists. Does that mean that we should not use GMOs in nature? Not at all. As our ESA and NRC reports of a quarter-century ago stressed, one should consider both the benefits of a particular environmental application of a GMO and its potential harm if something goes wrong. In those cases where the benefits are great, and the potential for harm is very small (both in likelihood and magnitude), then the issues of containment and recall after a release are less critical. But in those instances where the potential risks of some GMO are substantial—either in terms of the likelihood or the magnitude of adverse effects—then every effort must be made to put the GMOs on a tight leash or, absent that, do not proceed with the proposed application.
[The image below is one part of Figure 1 from the Nature paper, titled “Recoded organisms engineered to depend on synthetic amino acids” and authored by Alexis J. Rovner, Adrian D. Haimovich, Spencer R. Katz, Zhe Li, Michael W. Grome, Brandon M. Gassaway, Miriam Amiram, Jaymin R. Patel, Ryan R. Gallagher, Jesse Rinehart and Farren J. Isaacs. This image is shown here under the doctrine of fair use.]