Synthetic Chromosome: Major Step In Synthetic Biology As Live Yeast Artificially Created In A Lab

By Ben Wolford on March 28, 2014 1:21 PM EDT

Molds, including yeast, form in a petri dish. Scientists have engineered live brewer's yeast using a synthetic chromosome. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Molds, including yeast, form in a petri dish. Scientists have engineered live brewer's yeast using a synthetic chromosome. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Beer and biology. In a synthetic biology breakthrough, scientists have artificially engineered a brewer's yeast chromosome and inserted it into the nucleus of a living yeast cell. The manmade genes were then passed on to scores of generations of yeast offspring.

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The study, described in the current issue of Science, was the biggest advance in the creation of artificial organisms since much simpler species of bacteria were manipulated with synthetic chromosomes in 2009. Unlike bacteria, yeast cells carry DNA inside a nucleus, like the cells of larger animals, including humans, do. "We can shuffle genes into these chromosomes like a deck of cards," co-author Jef Boeke, a New York University geneticist, told National Geographic.

Synthetic biology is a field of science that deals with a simple premise: if we understand the building blocks of organisms, then we can rearrange those building blocks for useful purposes. Scientists emphasize "useful purposes." This isn't Frankenstein. Mixing dog breeds is a simple example of synthetic biology, but with the advent of more advanced genetic research, scientists have been able to do their manipulations at the cellular level — deleting, adding, rearranging, or building whole DNA strands from scratch. Eventually, scientists hope this technology will prove useful in drug development and biofuels.

In 1996, scientists finished mapping the yeast genome, comprised of 6,000 genes. These genes are contained in 16 chromosomes, or DNA structures, of which humans have 23. Yeast is a good candidate for this type of study because it's simple, but it's still a eukaryote, and it has applications in food, medicine, and biofuels.

Boeke told AFP that his team used software to make more than 50,000 changes to the DNA of brewer's yeast — used for beer fermentation — and then directly inserted the new chromosome into the nucleus of the yeast. "It is the most extensively altered chromosome ever built," Boeke said. What makes the study so remarkable is that the yeast incorporated the altered DNA into its reproduction. According to National Georgraphic, the yeast passed their natural and manmade chromosomes on to 125 generations of offspring.

One biologist, Todd Kuiken, told National Geographic that this proves our ability to "design completely novel organisms. The research team has created what some might call the first synthetic cell that was designed, built and reproduced without a host cell present."

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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