Brian Resnick in Vox:
In just a few years, scientists will unveil a creature whose every letter of DNA was written by a human being. It will be a yeast cell will a fully designer genome, with biological capabilities seen nowhere else in nature.
Today, a global team of scientists has announced a major milestone in their decade-long quest to create a fully synthetic yeast genome. As described in the journal Science, the hundreds of scientists have completed work on six of the yeast’s 16 chromosomes (the individual stands of DNA that make up a genome). Meanwhile, the remaining 10 chromosomes (plus one extra, not found in nature) have been designed and are awaiting production.
The synthetic yeast will be a huge advancement in bioengineering. It will be a proof of concept that scientists can design and implement genome-wide changes, tailoring microorganisms in major ways for further engineering and study. It means we may be able to create whole new species of microorganisms for industrial or scientific purposes.
No, this isn’t “playing God,” the scientists behind the project say. In their view, rewriting the yeast genome is more like domestication. “No one created a dog; they adapted a wolf,” says Sarah Richardson, a synthetic biologist who is the lead author on one of the Science papers describing the project.
Right now, biologists have a lot of genetic engineering tools at their disposal. CRISPR/Cas9 allows biologists to neatly snip out one single gene and replace it with another. Recombinant DNA is how we’ve coaxed bacteria to create human insulin — a treatment for diabetics. But those techniques are for tiny edits. This yeast project is a rewriting and reorganization of the whole genetic book.