Synthetic yeast chromosomes are just the beginning

Expanding this kind of work to human chromosomes could result in important medical breakthroughs

Share

Synthetic biology has the ring of a brave new world about it. The notion of making new kinds of life forms from scratch – rather than just tinkering with the genes of existing ones – sounds like Frankenstein on steroids. But it is not. Scientists’ successful creation of the first complete, functional chromosome of a yeast cell should be celebrated not as a step on the slippery slope to genetic disaster but as a remarkable achievement for the potential good of humanity.

Yeast is a remarkable microbe in that it has an ancient relationship with humans, going back for as long as we have baked bread, brewed beer and made wine. It is in some ways as domesticated as a cat, dog or farm animal. We use genetically modified yeast in many modern biotechnology applications, such as the manufacturing of vaccines and drugs. But its true potential – like many other useful microbes – could be much wider if we could alter its genetic make-up in a more fundamental and controlled manner.

Synthesising complete yeast chromosomes, and even a complete yeast genome made of its full complement of 16 chromosomes, would be a way of designing the overall genetic code of the microbe to do things that would otherwise be impossible. It could, for example, produce more efficient biofuels. Meanwhile, expanding this kind of work to human chromosomes could result in important medical breakthroughs. Scientists have already constructed much simpler, pared-down synthetic copies of human chromosomes, so the full-scale version may well be possible in the near future.

This kind of research will, of course, bring new ethical as well as technical challenges, especially in relation to the human genome. Gene therapy – the deliberate alteration of a patient’s DNA – has not been a great success, but this is largely because of the difficulty of introducing genetic changes accurately enough to damaged cells.

Artificial chromosomes offer a way to make these alterations in a more precise and controlled manner. But the more immediate practical benefit of this technology will come in industrial processing. The humble yeast could therefore soon become even more important for human well-being than it has been so far.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee