Researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute, Maryland have created a synthetic chromosome from yeast paving the way for a new field of study. The team spent years sequencing the DNA of a simple yeast cell known as Saccharomyces Cerevislae, a kind of yeast used to brew beer.
The Venter team, which consisted of many university students and researchers decoded just one of the yeasts 16 chromosomes, entering the data into a software system that allowed the team to recompose and alter at will. The software was used as a sort of “build your own” chromosome. By rearranging the DNA totally new versions of the yeast could be synthesized. According to Jef Boeke the director of New York University’s institute for system genetics Over 50,000 changes were made to the DNA coding of the chromosome. “It’s the most extensively altered chromosome ever built, and our yeast is still alive, its remarkable.” Many of the changes to the yeast were redundant or less used processes. Although Boeke and his team did have some fun with their project adding “watermarks” that spelled out the names of various researchers involved in the creation of the synthetic chromosome.
The yeast is used as a representative of Eukaryotes which is to say an organism that contains a nucleolus and structures inside of a membrane. All animals and plants have Eukaryotes as cells making this yeast a good subject of study with at least a third of its chromosome relating to humans. According to researchers the remaking and manipulation of the yeast’s genes is a big step in the journey to genetically engineer better biological resources. The prospects of a superior yeast doesn’t end at a better tasting beer. Yeast is used in the making of various medicines and vaccines. The yeast could be used to make biofuels such as ethanol, alcohol, butanol and biodiesel. The exciting potential of this type of research is that the same kind of yeast can be specialized to meet a specific purpose. The Venter team spent years mapping out the various section of the chromosome which now allows them to rearrange them into whatever sequences that would best suit the goal. While one version of the same yeast could be designed to efficiently produced biodiesel and help reduce the dependence on petroleum-based products, another version of the yeast could be designed to make more powerful vaccinations.
Previously chromosomes have been synthesized for bacteria, a Prokaryotic organism which was much simpler compared to the task of creating a synthetic chromosome from yeast. Farren Isaacs a bioengineer at Yale University praised the project as a “Impressive demonstration of not just DNA synthesis but redesign of an entire eukaryotic chromosome.” Isaacs continued by saying the research team was paving the way for a new era of biology. The researchers published their findings in Science journal and are now working to unravel more of the coded DNA and make more changes.
It is likely scientist have only scratched the surface of what can be done with genetic engineering. The future of genetics and indeed the very direction of life on this planet maybe decided by mankind’s ability to manipulate and design what are considered the “building blocks” of life. There is still a heavy controversy about the manipulation of genes as some fear that changes to the natural design of nature may cause more unforeseen problems than aren’t yet apparent. Others believe that the meddling of the genome and the creation of synthetic chromosomes is a forbidden field. However the ethical debate may play out, genetic engineering is coming out as one of the frontier science fields of the 21st century.
By Eric Ohm