Discoveries: Reining in Rogue Genes

A technology developed at the U could be the key to controlling invasive species

Despite its breakthrough potential to improve the lives of humans and the state of our environment, genetic engineering comes with a major obstacle: Altered genes could unintentionally breed with their natural counterparts and release novel genes into the wild.

This scenario may be preventable, thanks to researchers at the University of Minnesota’s BioTechnology Institute, who have pioneered a technology called “synthetic incompatibility.” The approach, in a sense, makes engineered organisms a separate species, which in turn are unable to interbreed with their wild or domesticated relatives.

“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 in the U’s College of Biological Sciences, who led the study. It was published in October in the journal Nature Communications.

Experts say synthetic incompatibility could be used to control invasive species, crop pests, and disease-carrying insects, as well as prevent altered genes from escaping from genetically modified crops into other plant populations. The technology may make it possible to increase the use of crops for medication, food, feed, and fuel, and raises hopes that genetic engineering may prove useful in efforts ranging from controlling Asian carp in North America to battling disease-carrying mosquitoes throughout the world.


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