Cloning the gene for green fluorescent protein is fun. Lots of fun. Cloners have put the GFP gene into rabbits, plants, cats, fish, and worms, and made mutants that code for proteins in every color of the fluorescent rainbow. Teachers like GFP so much that every year, high school students throughout the U.S. clone GFP in biology class.
From Yahoo news:
Jim Thomas of ETC Group, a biotechnology watchdog organization, warned that synthetic organisms in the hands of amateurs could escape and cause outbreaks of incurable diseases or unpredictable environmental damage.
“Once you move to people working in their garage or other informal location, there’s no safety process in place,” he said.
Jake Young, of Pure Pedantry dismisses this notion. He says that:
the more likely negative scenario is that these DIY labs will produce absolutely nothing.
and also that:
There is no greater risk of that than there is of transgenic bacteria escaping from any of the thousands of molecular biology laboratories in our nation. Genetically modified yeast and E. coli are not considered serious biological hazards because the modified strains require special growing conditions — including selection using antibiotics — to maintain the modification. Otherwise they revert to just plain old yeast and E. coli.
I agree with Jake that we’re unlikely to see amateur cloners causing environmental damage or causing outbreaks of incurable diseases. However, I do have a concern about home cloning.
For the record, if you read this blog, you may already know, I support DIY biology. I especially like the computer-based kind that I call “digital biology” and I have many posts on digital biology activities.
However, I’m also a microbiologist by training and I’m not comfortable with people engineering E. coli in their kitchens. I’m not worried about synthetic organisms, I’m worried about large numbers of bacteria with antibiotic resistance genes.
When students or researchers work with E. coli in a place like a school or lab, they have both the equipment to kill the bacteria afterwards, and someone around who knows that autoclaving your cultures is an important thing to do.
Your average kitchen, on the other hand, doesn’t have an autoclave, and or even a pressure cooker. I don’t know know if your average DIY biologist knows it’s a bad idea to pour E. coli down the sink.
Why would I worry about amateur cloners and antibiotic resistance genes?
We use antibiotic resistance genes in cloning because putting genes into bacteria is inefficient. Maybe only one cell out of a million might contain the gene you want to clone. So, we find that lucky cell by using antibiotics to kill all the other. Only the lucky cell with the antibiotic resistance “superpower” will live in the presence of antibiotics. All the other bacteria die.
Unless home cloners use proper safety techniques, like autoclaving or pressure cooking their cultures, they will be sending antibiotic resistant E. coli out into the environment at the end of their experiments.
Hopefully the DIY’ers take a microbiology lab course somewhere and buy a pressure cooker before they seriously get to work.