An article published in the most recent issue of the academic journal Science announced that a lab at NYU had successfully created the first man-made chromosome for a complex-celled organism. This “designer chromosome” is considered a major scientific advance, and the research of the international team on the project is being lauded as giant step forward in our ability to genetically redesign plants or animals.

chromosome

Statement from director of NYU’s Institute for Systems Genetics

Jef Boeke, director of the New York University’s Institute for Systems Genetics and a member of the research team, was interviewed after the article was published. “Our research moves the needle in synthetic biology from theory to reality,” he said.

“It is the most extensively altered chromosome ever built,” he continued. “We have made over 50,000 changes to the DNA code in the chromosome and our yeast is still alive. That is remarkable.”

Designer chromosome: details on the process

The first step in the process was decoding of one of yeast’s 16 chromosomes. The next step was using software to analyze and alter the chromosome, largely removing repetitive and less-used regions.

Using the altered chromosome as a model, the scientists then built a synthetic version of them from scratch. This involved linking up thousands of individual DNA nucleotides — the chemical building blocks (A, C, T, and G or U) that make up chromosomes.

The new synthetic chromosome was inserted into a brewer’s yeast cell as a test, and the yeast cell continued to function normally. This means the designer gene was successful, as a defect in the chromosome would have caused problems with the yeast cell.

In terms of future implications, yeast is commonly used in the manufacture of beer, biofuel and medicines, and the ability to tailor the yeast genome to meet the needs of individual industries could result in much more efficient production processes.

Although it might seem hard to believe, yeast actually has around 6,000 genes in common with humans.