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Way to prevent genetically altered, unaltered organisms from producing offspring foundWay to prevent genetically altered, unaltered organisms from producing offspring found

"Synthetic incompatibility" could boost safety and effectiveness of applying genetic engineering to control invasive species, produce fuel, prevent disease and more.

October 12, 2017

2 Min Read
Way to prevent genetically altered, unaltered organisms from producing offspring found

A major obstacle to applying genetic engineering to benefit people and the environment is the risk that organisms whose genes have been altered might produce offspring with their natural counterparts and release the novel genes into the wild.

Now, researchers from the University of Minnesota's BioTechnology Institute have developed a promising way to prevent such interbreeding. The approach, called "synthetic incompatibility," effectively makes engineered organisms a separate species that are unable to produce viable offspring with their wild or domesticated relatives, the researchers said.

Synthetic incompatibility has applications in controlling or eradicating invasive species, crop pests and disease-carrying insects as well as preventing altered genes from escaping from genetically modified crops into other plant populations. The results were published online Oct. 12 in the journal Nature Communications.

The technology uses a new class of molecular tools called "programmable transcription factors" that make it possible to control which genes are turned on and which genes are turned off in an organism. If an engineered organism mates with a wild counterpart, the transcription factors render the offspring unable to survive by activating genes that cause their cells to die.

The research was done in brewer's yeast, but it can potentially be applied in insects, aquatic organisms and plants using the gene editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9.

"Other methods to control gene flow -- for example, disrupting pollen or using a chemical to control reproduction in crops -- are very species-specific and change how the crops are propagated. Our approach is expected to work in virtually any sexually reproducing organism without changing how they are normally grown," said Michael Smanski, an assistant professor who led the study.

"This approach is particularly valuable because we do not introduce any toxic genes," added Maciej Maselko, a postdoctoral scholar from Smanski's lab who performed the work. "The genetic incompatibility results from genes already in the organism being turned on at the wrong place or time."

Synthetic incompatibility may make it possible to use crops to produce medications as well as food, feed and fuel. It also raises hope for using genetic engineering to control populations of invasive species or pests such as Asian carp in North America and disease-carrying mosquitoes throughout the world.

The next step, Smanski said, is to demonstrate that the approach can work in organisms other than yeast "We're working on moving into model fish, insects, nematodes and plants," he said.

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