I Wanted To Be Right But Synthetic Yeast News Proved Me Wrong

I was wrong.

On Quora, someone asked:

How far are we from engineering a completely synthetic, self-replicating cell or organism?

My original answer was three years. 2020.

My answer was based on research I’ve been conducting for What’s Your Bio Strategy?

Then last week, Science ran an issue on the creation of synthetic chromosomes.

The yeast genome is being reimagined as a synthetic chromosome

Scientists have synthesized five of the 16 chromosomes that comprise baker’s yeast. – Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

We have a long relationship with that species of yeast. We use it to make wine, brew beer, and make bread. It’s the microorganism we most use for fermentation. It’s also one of the most studied model organisms in molecular and cell biology. It is relatively easy to modify genetically and be grown at scale. That’s important for industrial applications.

Since s. cerevisiae is well-characterized, it made sense that scientists would choose to create a synthetic version.

It’s not the first, synthetic organism. [1]

That distinction goes to the researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute. In 2010, they created a replica of Mycoplasma mycoides, a parasite that causes pneumonia in goats. They called that new entity syn1.0.

In 2016, Venter’s group streamlined (or “defragged”) the M. mycoides genome to create what they termed “the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell.” The original synthesis in 2010 caused a bit of an uproar. Last year’s news, not so much.

Here's how undergrads are reconstructing yeast, creating a synthetic genome

Let’s get back to yeast.

Back in 2014, New York University yeast geneticist, Jef Boeke announced that he and a group of undergraduate researchers had synthesized the first baker’s yeast chromosome. (Remember, yeast has 16 chromosomes.)

It was a significant development because it only took a few years. And undergrads did most of the work. (In contrast, Craig Venter and his team took 15 years and US$40 million to synthesize syn1.0.)

Boeke and a team of researchers started the SC2.0 project to “synthesize a modified version of the genome chromosome by chromosome, from the bottom up.”

In last week’s announcement, the researchers announced they had “untangled, streamlined and reorganized the genome of the most studied of all eurkaryotic genomes.”

Ultimately, the synthetic organism they create will be yeast reimagined. At the same time they’ll add features “to facilitate chromosome construction and manipulation.”

When will synthetic yeast be finished?

By the end of 2017.

Researchers will complete the construction of an entire synthetic yeast genome by the end of 2017. – Click to Tweet.

My prediction was wrong by three years. Oh well.

[1] In an email, Andrew Hessel one of the scientists behind the Genome Write Project, wrote, “People tend to split hairs about synthetic organisms… They argue the organism itself (yeast) isn’t synthetic.” I wrote back, “if you take an organism (yeast), delete a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to do anything (or defrag, per Craig Venter), and it still works, then it’s a synthetic organism. Because it doesn’t exist in nature.” Andrew wrote back, “I think any genome that is produced de novo via synthesis and boots up a replicating organism makes that organism by definition a synthetic organism.” Your mileage may vary.

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