Scientists at Rice University have devised an eco-detector that will help in the detection and quantification of GMO DNA, proteins or antibodies in the natural ecosystem to prevent its disruption.
Genetically Modified Organisms
Natural organisms are genetically modified to make them more beneficial to man. While genetically modifying organisms is greatly debated over ethical aspects, there is no denying the fact that when it comes to fighting diseases and harmful insects, it greatly helps agriculture. As long as these genetically modified organisms (GMO) remain in controlled environments they are controllable but often they escape into the natural ecosystem and can wreak havoc.
Bacillus thuringienesis, a bacterium produces toxic proteins that when ingested by certain insects causes the insects to starve to death. These organisms have been widely used to control plant pests like the corn borers and caterpillars, moths and butterflies. Bacillus thuringienesis on sporulation produce crystallized proteins that are ingested by the insects. Bacillus thuringiensis has been used as a biological pesticide. Not all strains of these bacteria produce toxic proteins, some even colonize the gut of these insects. The proteins when ingested by the organism, in the alkaline environment of the gut, unfold and turn in delta endotoxins that cause the insects to starve to death.
Researchers took a step forward and incorporated the genes responsible for the production of these proteins into plants like corn and cotton. In 1996 Bt-corn (GM corn) was approved. The Bt-toxin genes are usually extra-chromosomal in Bacillus thuringiensis. Cry genes were the genes initially identified followed by Vip genes, both these genes produce Bt-toxins and have been incorporated in corn and cotton.
Problems associated with GMO
Resistance to plant diseases and pests, crop production and yield has greatly enhanced. The problem associated with tricking nature is that, once these genes leave controlled environments, they can cause potential damage to natural ecosystems. For example, after the harvest, when corn, detritus including stems, leaves and roots enter the creek system and kill other insects like the caddisfly that live in the aquatic environment. Disturbing an ecosystem can have lead to undesirable consequences of great magnitude and destroy an entire ecosystem.
Star Trek tricorder to the rescue
Scientists and researchers at Rice University, inspired by Star Trek tricorder are working on an eco-detector to hunt for the presence of GMO associated proteins in the wild. The eco-detector is designed as a portable, handheld device to help detection and quantification of GMO proteins in the ecosystem.
The device works on the principle of a light transmission spectrometer (LTS) that can detect the smallest traces of GMO proteins in water samples. The LTS will have nanoparticles specific to target DNA, antibodies or proteins and on binding the targets will become large enough for detection and quantification. Biologists have teamed with physicists to create this device.
Their present design is capable of detected GMO DNA upto 50 copies per ml of water sample. They aspire to bring down the detection level by 10% and are also collaborating with other universities to widen their studies and applicability. It is a device that can be employed worldwide to keep a check on disruption of natural ecosystems.