U nderstanding by creating” is the motto of the international team of scientists creating a new species of baker’s yeast from scratch.
Like computer programmers, the researchers are untangling, rewriting, rearranging and combining chunks of DNA - a process performed only by natural selection, until now - by adding synthetic material.
Yeast has long served as a research model, because its genetic code shares features with the human genome and is easier to study. Though unicellular, yeast is eukaryotic: its cells are complex, containing a nucleus and other organelles enclosed within membranes.
"They are a great model for understanding the basic wiring of higher cells," said Jef Boeke, a geneticist at the New York University School of Medicine who is leading the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project (Sc2.0).
The ability to manipulate yeast DNA will provide groundbreaking insights into how human cells work.
"This is really going to allow us to understand how to design cells from the bottom up that can be reprogrammed for many applications," said Daniel Gibson, vice president of DNA technologies at Synthetic Genomics.
The goal is therefore much more ambitious than providing bakeries or beer factories with manufactured yeast. The team aims to apply this knowledge to the pharmaceutical industry, to treat rare diseases or even to produce new forms of fuel.
“This work sets the stage for completion of designer, synthetic genomes to address unmet needs in medicine and industry,” said Professor Boeke.
The Sc2.0 team has so far completed five out of the 16 yeast chromosomes. It plans to construct a full synthetic genome by the end of the year.