University researchers develop method to stop genetic interbreeding

Researchers hope the findings, published this month, will someday allow them to control invasive species.

Precious Fondren

Research detailing a new approach developed by University of Minnesota researchers to prevent interbreeding between genetically modified organisms and their natural counterparts was published this month.

The new engineering method — called synthetic incompatibility — allows researchers to prevent toxic genes from escaping into the natural population. In the future, researchers hope to apply their findings to fish and other organisms. 

University postdoctoral associate Maciej Maselko said he became interested in synthetic incompatibility while searching for a way to increase the amount of medicinal substances scientists can extract from plants. 

Maselko struggled to find a way to prevent plants used for medicinal purposes from crossing with plants used for human consumption. He arrived at synthetic incompatibility as a solution. 

This approach prevents engineered organisms from producing viable offspring with their wild or domesticated relatives, according to a University press release. By using a certain set of molecular tools, researchers can manipulate which genes are turned on and off in an organism. That means if a wild organism mates with an engineered organism, the offspring can’t survive because certain cells will be activated and cause them to die. 

“We can take an organism, let’s say a food crop, and engineer it so that that crop can no longer reproduce offspring with that same species,” said University professor and the study’s lead researcher Michael Smanski. 

This approach allows the scientists to control the gene flow between genetically modified organisms and wild organisms, he said, adding that they can use it to stop toxic genes in GMOs from escaping into wild populations. Additionally, researchers hope it can one day help control the invasive species, crop pests and disease-carrying insects, he said. 

“This has the potential to replace many of the chemical pesticides that we use to control invasive populations,” Smanski said.

Going forward, Maselko said researchers are focused on developing synthetic incompatibility in model insects, plants, fish and nematodes. 

“Imagine a fish that you can release into the wild that has certain genes that allow it to break down different pollutants that might exists in those water waves, but that fish can’t reproduce with any of the wild fish there,” Maselko said. “You don’t have to worry about those genes existing in the environment for an extended period of time.”     

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated a use of synthetic incompatibility. Researchers hope it can one day control invasive species.