This Bacteria Will Self-Destruct in Three, Two, One…

When the handful of survivors helicopter away from the disaster-stricken island at the end of Jurassic Park, somebody (there’s one in every audience) without fail ruins the moment by asking: “So what happens to all the dinosaurs?”

Clearly they weren’t paying attention to one of my favorite movies.

In a brief but key exchange, the cast discusses the lysine contingency. The dinosaurs were genetically engineered to have an amino acid deficiency; without dietary supplements they would die out (again) in little over a week.

More than 20 years after Jurassic Park was written, this science-fiction biocontainment strategy is becoming a reality. In January, Nature published two studies ( Daniel et al. and Alexis et al. ) reporting on bacteria genetically engineered with the same self-destruct mechanism. Without specific, but readily available amino acid supplements the cultures unilaterally collapsed. They were unable to survive anywhere the researchers did not intend.

Better yet, the new research has a crafty edge. The ‘weak-link’ amino acids used in the studies are entirely synthetic. While naturally occurring amino acids can always be found in the wild (which is what spawns the magnificent return of the dinos in Jurassic Park: the Lost World), an organism dependent on synthetic molecules has but one master. With this design we can engineer much tighter and more reliable controls.

What does this mean for biotechnology and the FDA? Huge public debates loom about the use and impact of genetically modified crops. One of the biggest fears is a runaway crop breed that could irreversibly alter the DNA of a plant species, in directions that aren’t entirely safe. Biocontainment measures like those in the Nature studies could allow for a more controlled investigation. GMO seeds and pollen that drifted outside of an experimental crop would be unable to integrate with non-GMO breeds and would quickly die out.

Nature only hinted at another fantastic implication. These synthetic cultures were particularly resistant to viral infection – possibly because viruses can’t replicate using altered DNA. Could we engineer ourselves, or other organisms, to be impervious to viruses? Would that immunity be worth the cost of altering our own DNA?

I’m fascinated by the possibilities, but I plan to let the science fiction writers take that one for now. I’ll check back in twenty years.