Scientists are attempting to cook up man-made, custom-built DNA using yeast cultures. If they succeed, this means humans can now make life forms from scratch.
Researchers have long been able to alter the DNA code according to specific characteristics. Now, Jef Boeke from New York University heads an international team composed of 11 labs on four continents to “rewrite” the yeast genome so that it works with man-made DNA, CBS News reports.
This project is part of a bold yet controversial attempt for scientists to come up with custom-made DNA codes that can be inserted into living cells, which in turn will change how they function. Eventually, these codes could even provide a treatment for certain diseases.
Their work could also be the first step in giving science the ability to create new organisms.
A genome is the genetic code of a living thing, and learning how to construct this from scratch means “you really can construct something that’s completely new,” says Boeke.
The researchers may find basic rules that govern how genomes function, which would be useful. But this kind of project can also open the door to things like new microbes or cells that could be used in vaccines or medications. Boeke says that the right modifications might even make yeast produce new biofuels.
Other scientists are optimistic that creating new life forms in the future would help make things like trees that can purify water supplies or plants that can detect explosives.
Of course, along with this is the ability to redesign human DNA. This does not mean genetically altering people, the scientists argue, but rather making cells better at producing pharmaceutical proteins or engineering stem cells to make organs for transplants.
Since the work is subject to many ethical questions, the team intends to get guidance from ethicists and the public before trying anything out.
Boeke’s New York lab, along with scientists in Australia, Singapore, China, the United Kingdom and other parts of the USA, have split up the herculean task of rewriting the yeast genome. Boeke compares the genome to a book containing many chapters, with scientists creating a new edition and allowing the book to do things that were not possible before.
So far, the project has built around a third of the yeast genome, and Boeke hopes that the rest will be done by the end of the year. He does admit that it will take longer to test this new DNA and fix all problems that may arise.
The scientist also acknowledges that he’s opening a can of worms. “The notion that we could actually write a human genome is simultaneously thrilling to some and not so thrilling to others. So we recognize this is going to take a lot of discussion.”