Synthetic species made to shun sex with wild organisms

By Ewen Callaway

Maciej Maselko has made wild sex deadly — for genetically modified organisms. A synthetic biologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis—St Paul, Maselko and his colleagues have used gene-editing tools to create genetically modified fruit flies and yeasts that cannot breed successfully with their wild counterparts. In so doing, they say they have engineered synthetic species.

“We want something that’s going to be identical to the original in every way, except it’s just genetically incompatible,” says Maselko, who is due to present his work on 16 January at the annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, California. The research was co-led by Michael Smanski, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota.

The technology could be used to keep genetically modified plants from spreading genes to unmodified crops and weeds, thereby containing laboratory organisms, the researchers hope. It might even help combat pests and invasive species, by replacing wild organisms with modified counterparts. Other scientists say that the approach is promising, but warn that it could be stymied by technical hurdles, such as the ability of modified organisms to survive and compete in the wild. “This is an ingenious system and, if successful, could have many applications,” says evolutionary biologist Fred Gould of the North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

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