laboratory with petri dishes Most of us are familiar with that iconic scene where Doctor Victor Frankenstein, on succeeding with his attempt to create human life cries out dramatically, “it’s alive”.  In reality, scientists are still on a quest to understand how to design life from scratch, long after it was imagined a possibility. Scientists today are able to alter and repair DNA, but not create new life.  Researchers led by project director Jef Boeke, are taking the radical perhaps controversial step to create entirely man-made, custom-built DNA at New York University lab in the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences in New York as part of the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project (Sc2.0).

Rewritten DNA has been successfully integrated into simple viruses and bacteria, but the forefront for redesigning a genome is the more complex yeast.  Yeast is the cutting edge darling of researchers for many reasons. The yeast genome, in this case, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is larger and more intricate than viruses and bacteria, but it’s also well-researched, and it happily accepts taking man-made DNA that replaces its own. Yeast cells are simpler and easier to study than human cells, but conveniently share many of the same features.  Still, it is a huge effort building the 16 designer synthetic chromosomes encompassing approximately 12 million base pairs of DNA.  So Boeke’s lab and scientists in the United States, Australia, China, Singapore, and the United Kingdom have split up the work. So far the team has built about one-third of the yeast genome species and by the time the new yeast genome is completed, researchers will have added, deleted or altered about a million DNA letters.  Boeke estimates it will be another year to complete the DNA swapping phase, and then they will finally combine the various sections into one whole synthetic genome, followed by lots of testing and problem fixing.

Next steps for the Sc2.0 team is to add a 17th chromosome to the designed yeast genome species to improve its protein-making machinery.  Sc2.0 project director Jef Boeke, summarizes that:  “Beyond any one application, the seven papers  published in the journal Science, substantiate that newly created systems and software can answer basic questions about the nature of genetic machinery by reprogramming chromosomes in living cells.”