The title probably sounds like something out of a disappointing Hollywood science-fiction plot, but in this case truth is truly stranger than fiction. Right up front we should point out that we’re not talking about cooking up super soldiers in a test tube… yet, but the implications could be staggering. Scientists are currently in the process of creating the first synthetic yeast and claim they are within two years of doing it. This sounds like it could be potentially great news for lovers of beer, bread and pizza (since we use yeast for all those things and countless other edible products) but there’s one important point to keep in mind. Yeast is a living thing. That means that we are on the cusp of synthesizing life. (Washington Post)
In a significant advance toward creating the first “designer” complex cell, scientists say they are one-third of the way to synthesizing the complete genome of baker’s yeast.
In seven studies published Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers describe how they built six of the 16 chromosomes required for the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, altering the genetic material to edit out some genes and write in new characteristics.
“A lot of synthetic biology is motivated by this idea that … you only understand something when you can build it,” said Johns Hopkins computational biologist Joel Bader, one of the leaders of the project. “Well, now we know enough about biological systems that we can design a chromosome on a computer, synthesize it in a laboratory, put it in the cell, and it will work.”
Tackling the obvious questions in reverse order, before asking if we should do this, many of us are probably wondering how they did it. Paul Seaburn at Mysterious Universe explains that it all comes down to the software.
What is the key to creating synthetic life? Software! Before working on the yeast, the researchers created BioStudio – software that allowed them to change yeast DNA and move it from one chromosome to another. After making new-and-improved yeast, BioStudio allowed them to chemically synthesize small pieces of a chromosome and eventually assemble them into one whole chromosome. After doing this for five of the 16 years chromosomes (a sixth had already been synthesized in 2014), BioStudio then allowed them to replace one real chromosome with a synthetic one in six yeast cells. The next step will be to mate the yeast cells, combining them until they get one with 16 synthetic chromosomes.
Sounds like the Nobel Prize should go to BioStudio.
Between projects like this and the growing popularity and functionality of CRISPR technology (which we’ve discussed here before) the world’s scientists are certainly zooming forward into all sorts of new, interesting and possibly frightening areas. For the moment we seem to just be talking about creating yeast. Fair enough. Yeast certainly sounds like a harmless enough subject to be tinkering with but the potential ethical implications are mindbending. Are we really so confident in our understanding and mastery of the universe at this point that man should be creating life (literally) where no life existed before? And if you can produce yeast in a laboratory in 2019, what might you be able to cook up in 2059 or 2119? Will we be producing entire new species of animals to serve as our pets? What if you produced something that was uncomfortably close to resembling a human being and had a reasonably advanced level of intelligence? Perhaps we could give it life but then we’d have to wrestle with the much stickier question of whether or not we could give it a soul.
There are also some rather more mundane questions that come to mind as well. We frequently find ourselves fretting over the Centers for Disease Control and the vials full of extremely dangerous organisms which reside there. An entire genre of movies and horror books has been born out of scenarios where those organisms managed to escape. How about this new yeast? Could it have any unintended effects or abilities? And what if it breaks out into the wild and begins reproducing before we fully understand all of that?
I have the feeling that it’s far too late to stop this train from leaving the station at this point. Once mankind realizes that a thing can be done it’s generally only a matter of time before it is done. Artificial life is on the way, so you younger readers may well wind up living to see a time when things get extremely interesting. Best of luck to us all.