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Artificial life: Researchers create chromosomes in a test tube

Hans-Martin Durst Autor, Hemd & Hoodie
One third of a higher life form’s chromosomes have been produced in a laboratory for the first time. This should allow for new organisms and gene therapy in the future.

Scientists made a breakthrough towards producing new life forms in a test tube in 2010 by creating a bacteria with a synthetic genome. Now, for the first time, they have been able to artificially produce one third of the DNA of a higher life form. A group of researchers have recreated five of the 16 chromosomes in baker’s yeast in a laboratory and subsequently integrated these into living cells. Due to its millions of base pairs, the complexity of the genetic material meant that this milestone could only be achieved with a great deal of technical effort.

Another factor was that the researchers could not simply copy the yeast chromosomes on a one-for-one basis, but instead had to reassemble them. They moved DNA sequences from one chromosome to another and built in backdoors so that they would be able to alter the genetic makeup more easily in future. At the same time, they cut out sections without crucial functions and then performed tests to verify the functionality of the cells. “Fundamentally, we’re accelerating evolution,” explains Jef Boeke, who has led the long-term project to fully synthesize the yeast genome.

Using chromosomes in the fight against hereditary diseases

The goal is to alter the yeast so that it can be more easily used to produce medicines, biofuels and highly nutritious foodstuffs. The scientists hope to synthetically create the remaining eleven chromosomes by the end of the year. In the long term, the aim of the research is to form the basis for recreating a complete plant, animal or even human genome. It may then be possible to use the technology in gene therapy to replace patients’ faulty chromosomes. This would allow congenital diseases to be cured rather than just tackling the symptoms.

The researchers reassemble some of the yeast chromosomes.
The researchers reassemble some of the yeast chromosomes. Gif: Giphy – (montage)

However, such ideas give rise to ethical concerns regarding the effects of genetically modified organisms on the environment. There is also the fear that in future humans with optimized DNA could be bred in test tubes. The researchers emphasize that the modified chromosomes are only intended for use in laboratories and they have no intention of creating humans without biological parents. Going forward, they also propose using a part of their budget to consider ethical questions.

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