News Feature | April 1, 2014

World's First Synthetic Chromosome Produced in Maryland

By Liisa Vexler

Scientists at Maryland’s J. Craig Venter Institute have developed a synthetic chromosome derived from yeast, opening the door to a new area of genetics for researchers to explore. Over the course of years, the research group sequenced the DNA of a simple yeast cell called a Saccharomyces Cerevislae, the type of yeast utilized by beer brewers.

The team from the Venter Institute comprising students and researchers mapped just one chromosome out of the yeast’s 16. The data was captured in a software program that made it possible for team members to reconstitute and change it as they required.

The computer program created a type of “build your own” chromosome system. By facilitating the rearrangement of DNA, new incarnations of the yeast could be produced. New York University’s head of the Institute of Systems Genetics, Jef Boeke, indicated that more than 50,000 alterations were made to the chromosome’s DNA code. “It’s the most extensively altered chromosome ever built, and our yeast is still alive, it’s remarkable.” Dr. Boeke found that the cells “behave almost identically to wild yeast cells, only they now possess new capabilities and can do things that wild yeast cannot.”

Better yeast production is desirable not only for the purposes of making better beer or bread. It can be useful for producing better pharmaceutical treatments or vaccines. It could also be used to make biofuels like ethanol, alcohol, butanol, and biodiesel. This research is so exciting because of its potential for customizing the yeast for a specific purpose.

Farren Isaacs, a bioengineer at Yale University, lauded the research as an “Impressive demonstration of not just DNA synthesis but redesign of an entire eukaryotic chromosome.”

The research findings from this project were published in the journal, Science. The group says that they are presently continuing work to decode more DNA and establish new changes and genetic possibilities.