Synthetic yeast chromosomes bring artificial life closer

  • Date

    Tue 16 May 17

An Essex computer scientist is part of a global research team on the brink of creating completely synthetic yeast for the first time - a scientific break-through which will lead to a better understanding of cell biology and further advances in medicine and biotechnology.

The Synthetic Yeast Project team, led by geneticist Jef Boeke from New York University School of Medicine, set out to design and build a living one-cell microorganism. They had previously created one of the 16 chromosomes which make up yeast. They have now successfully created five more and are on track for being able to create completely synthetic yeast by the end of the year.

Dr Giovanni Stracquadanio, Lecturer at the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex, is part of the research team which has just published its findings in a series of papers published in Science. Scientists have used yeast as a model organism because these cells share many features with human cells, but are simpler and easier to study.

The synthetic chromosomes, containing DNA, were entirely designed on a computer, in a very similar way to how we design cars and microchips. The resulting synthetic yeast could be used to produce drugs or new types of fuel.

Dr Stracquadanio said: “We have shown that it is possible to redesign a cell on a computer. As a computer scientist, I designed and developed algorithms to recode and edit the DNA sequence of yeast chromosomes. These methods are now part of the open-source software called BioStudio. A key aspect was to establish the methods to analyse data to check that our edits did not affect the fitness of the synthetic cells.

“This Computer-aided Biological Design Automation approach has reduced the design process from months to weeks and minimized human errors. The development of this, and other technologies, is the first step to engineer more complex cells, like mammal cells, and potentially paves the way towards personalized medicine”.