Star Trek-style device could help spot 'rogue' genetically modified organisms in the environment

Ryan O'Hare
Star Trek tricorder. Photo: Martin Hajek

Eco-warriors could soon get a sci-fi boost in the form of a handheld device for spotting rogue genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Researchers in the US are developing the devices, inspired by tricorders from Star Trek, to detect traces of GMOs which could leech into the environment, disrupting ecosystems.

The technology could enable users to scan streams and rivers for modified proteins and DNA which could potentially cause damage.

Genetic engineering has enabled farmers to boost their yields and produce resistant varieties of fruits and vegetables which would otherwise be ravaged by pests, disease or poor weather.

By finding the gene for a beneficial trait in one organism, such as drought resistance, and incorporating it into the DNA of a plant, it enables the plant to take on some of the same properties.

Despite the benefits, one of the major scientific concerns from environmentalists has been the potential for modified genetic elements to be transferred to non-GM plants and even animals in the wild.

A team at Rice University in Texas has been testing the effects of such GM-associated elements escaping into the environment and how to detect them.

Focusing on pest-resistant Bt corn – which has been engineered with a protein from a bacterium – they are measuring the levels of proteins and DNA which make it into the waterways from detritus such as husk, leaves and roots which could easily be spread in the environment by the wind or by animals.

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