Genetic Modification: All things considered.
The story of xenobiology starts in the 70s and 80s, with the emergence of a technology we all know very well today. Genetic modification. DNA is the code inside all living things. It’s like an instruction manual, that makes you you. And because it is written in a universal biological language, if you take an instruction from one thing and put it in another, you can sometimes – if you’ve done it right - give one organism a trait of another. When it comes to applications, the sky is the limit. From the frivolous – cats with genes from jelly fish that glow in the dark, to the potentially famine ending – rice that can survive droughts, genetic engineering could solve some pretty dramatic problems, as Georgia Mills found out from Dr Brenda Parker at University College London.
Brenda - A genetically modified organism is, perhaps, one that contains DNA that didn't belong in the organism to begin with. It might have been taken from something else or, perhaps, a set of genes from different organisms have been put together to create a pathway to manufacture a specific product.
Georgia - Dr Brenda Parker is a lecturer in the Department of Biochemical Engineering at University College London...
Brenda - For example, there’s a lovely paper about making bioplastics in microalgae. They took the genes from another organism that happens to make this bioplastic and they inserted that into the microalgae so it started to make the bioplastic inside the cells, so that would be an example of a genetically modified organism.
Georgia - DNA is the code inside all living things. It’s like an instruction manual that make you you, and me me. Because it’s written in this universal biological language, if I take an instruction from one thing and fit it inside another you can sometimes, if you’ve done it right, give one organism a trait from another.
When it comes to applications the sky’s the limit. From the frivolous - you can give a cat genes from a jellyfish to make it glow in the dark to the potentially famine ending - could you tweak the genes of rice so it could survive droughts. Genetic engineering could solve some pretty traumatic problems, which is why scientists like Brenda are so interested in it…
Brenda - My background is primarily on microalgae; that’s what I work on at the moment. GMOs is something that’s been emerging for us in the last few years as more and more technologies come on line for genetic manipulation of microalgae. Specifically, I’ve been working on vaccines and novel antimicrobials, so engineering algae to be able to produce these products. I think, long term, one of the goals has always been for this industry to try and harness the power of photosynthetic organisms to make commodity products, so that would be something like biofuels. Yields at present are very low; it’s not economically viable so a lot of attention and a lot of effort has been put into strategies to try and boost productivity or increase yields, and some of these will fall certainly fall into the category of genetically modified organisms.
Georgia - Algae that can grow vaccines, drugs, produce high yields of renewable fuel. If we can crack it, it sounds almost too good to be true. But genetic modification is not exactly the most popular kid in the technological playground. A recent survey found that 64% of Americans were opposed to GM foods, and YouGov reported that four out of ten of us in the UK felt negatively about them.
Among the concerns that have been raised is this idea of contamination. A genetically modified crop could escape, interbreed or crosspolenate with the natural populations. There’s even a funky trick some organisms can do where they nick DNA from something else and use it themselves. This is called horizontal gene transfer. In this scenario, once the horse has bolted there’s not much you can do. But finding out how likely this scenario is, or even if it would be a problem in the first place is a little tricky...
Brenda - The issue really is about the uncertainty about cultivating these organisms at scale. The impact they might have if they were to get out into the environment and really trying to ascertain if there’s a risk to ecosystems perhaps, and really trying to nail down what might the impact be on the surrounding environment because it’s really not certain at the moment.
Georgia - How do you do that; how do you work out what the risk is and what might happen?
Brenda - That’s a really interesting question. There has been a really lovely piece of research published just last month from a group in San Diego where they had cultivated algae where one of the strains had been augmented with GFP which is a fluorescent protein, and another had been modified to increase it’s fatty acid profile so as if we’d were growing it for biofuels.
What they did is they set up different nutrient traps around the site of cultivation and they measured how much of GM algae they could detect, so these traps were full of the nutrients that algae enjoy growing on. And really, what they found at the end of the experiment was while they could detect the GMOs in certain places, depending on the prevailing wind, the actual natural population vastly exceeded the GMOs. So while they were present they certainly didn’t excel or didn’t outcompete what was already in the natural environment.
Georgia - Are these studies quite hard to do in general?
Brenda - Incredibly difficult to do. This study had been granted permission from the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US. This is really the first of its kind as far as I know. In Europe, this would be an incredibly difficult study to do just because getting a license for uncontained release of GMOs would be very hard.
Georgia - The idea is that people are worried about the risks so, therefore, it’s almost impossible to do an experiment that would look at what the risks actually are?
Brenda - Yes. It is a little bit of a catch 22. It’s something that we have on another European project that I worked on recently, The Analgae Project that we did look at what might be the restrictions in terms of conducting these kinds of trials. I think Europe is very unified in terms of its approach to uncontained release of GMOs. However, I suppose, as with all of these things it may well be another country that decides to lead on this first. And certainly the study that’s been done in the US has been quite pioneering in the way that its approached it and perhaps that will build confidence to let other people try but, in the meantime yes, it’s incredibly prohibitive. We have to literally culture these organisms in the way that we would culture any other genetically modified organism.