Design and modeling of safeguard control in microbial swarmbots exhibit collective survival. Bacteria confined in the microbial swarmbot can maintain a high local density and survive. Cells escaping the swarmbot will have a reduced density due to a larger extra-capsule environment. If their density drops below their survival threshold, they will die, leading to safeguard control. Credit: Shuqiang Huang et al./Molecular Systems Biology

The can of worms is open. 

Bio-engineering has become a tool that many can use and misuse. And concern is real. Technologies like CRISPR allows the manipulation of genes with a level of complexity that is manageable to many labs. The consequences of these manipulations may be more difficult to manage. This applies to unintentional side-effects as well as to malicious, intended, effects.

Scientists are now at work to find solutions to these new problems.

At Duke University they have tried a new approach by inserting self safeguard in bacteria so that they can survive only under controlled condition. Clearly this is fine but it only works if the problems might derive from unintended consequences, not if they are intentional.

What they did was to insert in Escherichia Coli bacteria (these are the ones most used in experimentation) the instructions to produce an antidote that makes the bacteria survive when attacked by an antibiotic but only if the antidote is over a certain thresholds. This means that if the bacteria are clustered in a dense colony their production of antidote ensure their survival when attacked by an antibiotic. If on the other hand a few bacteria escape from the cultured colony and disperse in the environment (migrate to our body) the amount of antidote produced will not be sufficient and they will die.

In practice the researchers have found a way to ensure that only bacteria remaining in the laboratory environment can survive.

This mechanism was used to demonstrate the approach to control a bacteria colony but it can be modified to get the bacteria produce specific proteins only when they are clustered in a colony, to attack specific cells or viruses and so on.

What really impressed me is not the result, per se, although it is ... well ... impressive, rather the issues we are now facing because of the evolution of technology. Bio-engineering is really opening up a can of worms and we are far to understand and control the consequences. 
The only point that is clear is that it is impossible to go back. We have created a new slate of problems and now we have to face them.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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