Paving way for evolution on demand — inorganic biology

Life forms have been created that carry strands of genetic material designed and built from scratch in the lab, paving the way for on-demand “evolution” of organisms.

Scientists made sections of chromosomes, the long molecules that bear DNA, and transferred them into yeast cells, of the kind normally used in baking. The cells adopted the new genetic code as part of their normal cellular machinery and, to the scientists’ surprise, appeared as healthy as their natural counterparts.

The feat is a big step towards the manufacture of completely synthetic organisms that could be designed to churn out biofuels, vaccines and industrial chemicals, said Jef Boeke, who led the study at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland…”We have created a research tool that not only lets us learn more about yeast biology, but also holds out the possibility of someday designing genomes for specific purposes, like making new vaccines or medications”…

Boeke’s work centred on a yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, one of the most well-understood organisms in the field of genetics. It has 16 chromosomes that together carry around 6000 genes…

Once the first chromosome was finalised, Boeke’s team took a second chromosome and edited that in a similar way.

In the next stage of the experiment, Boeke’s team used feedstocks of chemicals to manufacture the new chromosomes from scratch. They then dropped these into growing colonies of yeast cells, which replaced parts of their natural chromosomes with the synthetic versions.

The yeast cells’ genetic makeover was modest, amounting to changes in only one percent of the organism’s entire genome, but Boeke was still intrigued to see the organisms thrive.

“They are remarkably healthy and to us that’s incredibly exciting because it means our design is sound and we can play all the games we are fantasising about,” Boeke told the Guardian. The study is reported in the journal, Nature…

The process has more practical implications, by allowing scientists to direct the evolution of yeast cells, until they are better than those in use by industry.

Man and yeast have this ancient relationship. We’ve been brewing beer and making bread since before the written word,” said Boeke. “Nowadays, a major share of fermentation is done using yeast, and that’s everything from making vaccines to chemicals and biofuel production.

“All of those industries are actively looking for yeast that makes their favourite product better, whether it’s more efficiently, with a higher yield, or in special conditions.

“Industrial geneticists are always looking for new tools for their toolbox and this will become an important part of that.”

It’s the usual race between public and private universities on one side – and industry on the other. The dialectic of progress crosses forth-and-back between the two. But, with society’s current focus on everything from biofuels to vaccines, the likelihood of successes grows as fast as does the yeast.

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