May 22, 2019

WPI researcher working to detect genetically engineered organisms

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Eric Young, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at WPI, is working with scientists from other universities and Raytheon to create a tool to find engineered organisms.

A Worcester Polytechnic Institute researcher is working to find a way to determine which organisms found in the wild are genetically engineered, unlike their far more common naturally existing cousins.

Eric Young, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at WPI, is working with scientists from other universities and the industrial and defense giant Raytheon to create a tool to find engineered organisms based on their unique DNA markers.

Pharmaceuticals like insulin and a broad array of agricultural crops are modified today using genetic or synthetic processes. In the case of crops, for example, they are made to be more resistant to disease, pests or herbicides.

Young said the work will help ensure such technologies are being used in safe and ethical ways. Today, telling a genetically modified organism from a natural one can be like a proverbial needle in a haystack, he said.

His work, which is being done with two graduate students, will initially focus on yeast made for beer, which he says is easy to engineer and simple to grow.

The project is being funded by an 18-month federal initiative of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Waltham-based Raytheon is the primary contractor for the project.

Young, who received $378,000 for his work, is one of five subcontractors, along with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, University of California at San Francisco, and Mission Bio, a San Francisco biotech company.

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