Do you get permission to engineer your microbe?

Well, lots of researchers manipulate microbes in various ways in the lab. They delete genes. They make mutants They insert genes. Sometimes, they insert antibiotic resistance genes to help with the genetic manipulations they are doing.

Do researchers always think about the potential risks of what they are doing? Well, probably not. Most of the time that is OK as the risks are negligible. But some of the time, there are real risks to consider. One example of a real risk is the introduction into some pathogen of genes encoding a form of antibiotic resistance not seen normally in that pathogen. If that strain escapes from the lab, it could, in theory, spread into the real world and make treating infections by that pathogen more difficult.

All Things Considered had a very interesting story on “Making Drug-Resistant Germs In The Lab” about exactly this issue a few days ago where they discussed how one researcher submitted to an NIH oversight panel a request to carry out this type of experiment. It seems as though very few researchers actually submit requests to carry out these experiments, even though many are doing it. NPR also discussed how the CDC reviews requests to manipulate certain really nasty pathogens and that most of the requests have been granted. Unfortunately, I cannot find a transcript for this story to quote, but it is really worth listening to.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

3 thoughts on “Do you get permission to engineer your microbe?”

  1. As you mentioned, for most serious pathogens you do have to get approval to use various antibiotic selections for creating mutations. For example, you are not allowed to use antibiotics that could potentially be used in humans for Burkholderia and M. tuberculosis. Instead, you have to use other selection methods or use antibiotics that are toxic to humans. Depending on the method, some of these procedures can take MUCH longer than if you were to use simple antibiotic techniques, like ampicillin or gentamicin. Otherwise, for bugs that are not CRaZy killers, your right, we prolly don’t think very hard about introducing resistances. In general tho, microbiologists are cautious when handling (frequent hand washing, cleaning spills, etc) and disposing bacteria. So I suppose my feeling is to take the precautions where its important and let’s not panic and make life harder when we might not even need to? Horizontal gene transfer happens. a lot. As is known, our “anti-bacterial” hand soaps and frequent consumption of antibacterials do the job…and probably better than our lab critters would because a selection media is provided at the same time to ensure retention. (bacteria really don’t like to retain unnecessary DNA)I’m more worried about creating a super bug with the mutations we make….eeeeeek!!


  2. Well, from what I remember of the NPR story, not everyone asks for permission even for the nasty nasty ones. And also, 50% of requests were approved, suggesting that there is not much of a filter going on in the approval process.And yeah, the mutations we make are ignored too. Not that I am necessarily in favor of more regulation. But there is no doubt that many many scientists underestimate the risks of the things they do in the lab …


  3. agreed. its easy to get wrapped up and not even think about the chloroform we huff…or the radiolabeled materials we use…not to mention the ethical consequences of what we do….it gets tooooo comfy. So you’re right, we should think about it once and a while…put things back in perspective….


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