Thanks to an incredible scientific breakthrough the field of genetics has taken a substantial leap forward. An international group of scientists led by a team at New York University have managed to create a chromosome of their own design taking them one step closer on the path to creating artificial life. The findings of the group were published in the respected journal Science on the March 27 this year. The experiment is part of a seven-year project to create a cell with a genome designed exclusively through human intervention.
Chromosomes are long strands of DNA which determine the genetic make-up of a person. They are found in the cell nucleus of any organism larger than a microbe, and while they have been synthesized with bacteria before, this is the first time they have been successfully combined with a more complex protein. The scientists made a total of 500 alterations to the original chromosome before inserting it into some brewers yeast. The result was the successful invention of a life form which flourished on its own and can pass its man-made genes on to progeny.
The use of yeast was of primary importance in the experiment as many scientists believe that with modifications this protein could provide the key to innovation in the area of food, fuel and medicine as it is currently used to make beer, bio-fuels and certain medications. It is also not dissimilar to the design of human cells, as yeast has 16 pairs of chromosomes while humans have 23 which is part of the reason for selecting that specific cell and why it has been the subject of previous experiments in the genome area. Despite the similarities it is a precarious process as the scientist who led the project, Jef Boeke, observed that “one wrong move” could result in the cell dying. Thus the ability to artificially create chromosomes by a specific design has quite far-reaching biological implications providing the potential to alter the make up of future generations of human life.
Excitement surrounding the success of the creation of this drastically altered chromosome does center on the medical possibilities it offers. The innovations it may lead to could impact on the field of genetics, possibly giving scientist the means to not only redesign plants or animals but also create their very own designer human. In theory the ability to design specific chromosomes to order could translate into doing the same with microorganisms which could be tailored to treat particular diseases and illnesses.These possibilities are not without controversy and although there is inevitable excitement at this biological break through, there is also the usual concern around the ethical nature of plans which include “playing God” with genetics.
However there are various other implications of the experiment. It is hoped that this research could be used in order to aid the creation of more effective fuels. Microorganisms are vital to the creation of any bio-fuel but the ability to custom design a microorganism could improve the efficient production of the fuels. There is also the possibility that further research might lead to the creation of a completely new fuel that has the potential to be environmentally sustainable and possibly even a renewable energy source. Equally in the area of food production these developments could help make the basic ingredients of many primary foodstuffs. As well the research is relevant to innovations in pesticides and nitrogen fixation in soil.
As such, the double achievement of creating a custom design chromosome and then successfully incorporating it into a live yeast cell is a scientific step which should be applauded for the many other possibilities it offers outside of the close prospect to create artificial life.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion