Scientists Have Successfully Built a Custom, Synthetic Chromosome from Scratch

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The first designer chromosome is here. After seven years, a team of international scientists has created the first artificial eukaryote chromosome from scratch.  

Eukaryotes are complex cell organisms, like humans and plants, “in which the genetic material is organized into a membrane-bound nucleus.” The chromosome, was incorporated into brewer’s yeast, was built using a computer redesign of the structure. Scientists created the “thread-like structure piece by piece in the laboratory.”  Each gene was removed and replaced with fresh DNA, until an entirely new chromosome was constructed.

While bacteria and virus chromosomes have been created in the past, an artificial eukaryote chromosome is a major scientific development. The recreated Saccharomyces cerevisiae chromosome is of special significance because it determines how well the organisms mate. The chromosome was transplanted into a healthy organism, where it worked normally. In fact, it worked better than normally. Dr. Jef Boeke, head of the Institute of Systems Genetics at NYU, found that “they behave almost identically to wild yeast cells, only they now possess new capabilities and can do things that wild yeast cannot.”

Among biologists, the accomplishment has been compared to the first Mount Everest climb. Scientist Patrick Yizhi Cai believes “This is a major step forward. It’s the first synthetic eukaryote. This really demonstrates that we can do rational design on the chromosome scale. Ten years from now we’ll be able to synthesis genomes on a day-to-day basis.

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The study of yeast chromosomes opens the door for the “biotechnology industry to produce everything from alcohol […] to biofuels and specialty chemicals to nutrients.” Yeast and human cells have a similar genetic material packaging, both using a nucleus for DNA containment. Because of this similarity, Dr Boeke notes that yeast “serves as a better model for how human cells work in health and disease”. 

Though scientists are enthused, we don’t have to worry about a GATTACA world any time soon. Scientists believe it will take four years to create the 16 complete yeast chromosomes, and that's still a long way building our humans from scratch.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.