Suicide-bomber organisms

Image Creative Commons
July 2015

In 2000, 193 governments signed up to a moratorium created at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which specified that Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS) would not be field tested nor commercialised.

GURTS, also known as 'terminator technologies', span any genetic trick used to prevent reproduction of GMOs.

The first GURTS were used to produce GM plants with sterile seed which farmers couldn't 'steal' to grow the next year's crop, and which provided very cost-effective in-built protection for industry patent rights. Concerns were raised, and never resolved, that the artificial fertility-damaging genes could spread into conventional crops and cripple yields.

Things went quiet for a while, but then terminator trees loomed over the horizon and, this year, the Brazilian government began to wrestle with idea of embracing crops with GURTS.

It's also emerging that some very fancy genetic systems for self-destruction are under development.

Two 'proof of concept' experiments on bacteria have been published which show how life can be controlled by making it dependent on weird artificial nutrients [1]. These are aimed at the secure containment of GMOs which generate industrial or pharmaceutical chemicals, or at limiting the environmental spread of GMOs used for bioremediation. They're also intended to reassure the public that, somehow, GMOs can be designed to magically disappear.

Just after these 'genetic firewall' GURTS appeared in the literature, another paper was published which killed that 'reassurance' by pointing out just how difficult it is to destroy DNA, even under extreme heat and pressure, and how much more difficult it is to eliminate DNA which has been stably incorporated into cells. The focus of this study wasn't on the environmental safety of engineered DNA, nor on public concerns, but on how to destroy novel DNA so competitors couldn't extract it, analyse it ... and steal your ideas.

This GURT doesn't do anything as tame as produce sterile offspring or plants with special needs, it is a true self-destruct, multiple (belts-and-braces in case the first attempted suicide fails) DNA disintegration mechanism.

The 'self-destruct' button can be linked to any convenient environmental factor but, until it is pressed, the GMO shows no outward signs of the suicide-bomb within.


It is envisaged that this gene-degrading GURT will be used in industrial-scale fermentation vats. Containment under such systems is impossible, hence the use of the GURT. However, factory conditions are ideal for fast growth which is, incidentally, also ideal for brewing genetic mutations.

Just what could happen if/when these hidden genetic devices evolve and transmit (in the 'off' state) to a pathogen for further dissemination, reactivation and use we shudder to think.



  • Brian J. Caliando and Christopher A. Voigt, 2014, Targeted DNA degradation using a CRISPR device stably carried in the host genome, Nature Communications 19.05.15
  • Prof. Joe Cummins and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Terminator Trees, Institute of Science in Society Report 1.03.05
  • Russell Brandom, Scientists develop new 'kill switch' to destroy genetically-modified organisms that escape, The Verge, 21.05.15
  • Terminator threat looms over Brazil, GM Watch 11.05.15

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