Organic 'safety switches' may help prevent bioterror attacks

Scientists have developed "safety switches" for man-made organisms that can be used to prevent biological terrorist attacks. | Contributed photo

Scientists have developed “safety switches” for human-made biological organisms, a report on a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said.

The study was done by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and New York University's Langone Medical Center.

The breakthrough could reduce the potential threat of bioterrorism. Synthetic biologists designed and modified DNA in organisms, and have developed a method for ensuring the products only work as intended.

The “genetic switches” are built into the organisms and control the function of the genes the organism needs to survive, the report said. The switches are also controlled using a natural chemical mix that can be customized, depending on the organism. Two switches were created that work in yeast.

The method could be useful if such organisms -- used in food, medicines and biofuels -- were stolen.

"Synthetic biology is a fast-developing field with huge potential to benefit society, but we need to be mindful about its potential risks and take active steps to limit them in our biological designs,” Dr. Yihzi Patrick Cai, joint leader of the study, from the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, said. “With these genetic safety switches, we can contain engineered organisms with a special combination of small molecules."