Synthetic Cells Could Lead to Custom-Designed Organisms
CREDIT: kaibara87, via Flickr
It didn?t evolve, and there was nothing natural about its selection. The bacteria in Daniel Gibson's lab at the J. Craig Venter Institute was the first self-multiplying, living creature with a completely artificial genome, a step far beyond the simple cloning that touched off the age of genetic engineering.
The breakthrough to develop completely novel genomes, and not just chunks of DNA, was named one of MIT Technology Review's top ten emerging technologies of 2011. Researchers, however, are not looking to create new animals, but rather are hoping that synthetic genes can have pharmaceutical and industrial applications, ranging from uses in vaccines to biofuels.
For years, biologists had been able to create pieces of DNA using a DNA synthesis machine , but they weren't big enough to make up a whole genome. To get over this hurdle, Gibson and his colleagues used yeast cells to connect all of the fragments of DNA that the machine could make, and then repeated the process until they had a complete genome. He then put that into the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium to multiply.
"Their work clearly shows that it is possible, and becoming more routine, to build DNA at that scale ," said Christopher A. Voigt, a biologist who also works on biomolecular engineering. He was most recently at University of California San Francisco, but will be moving to MIT this summer.
Although the research is significant, it is still very early. Custom-designed organisms are a genetic promised land, but researchers are still years away from creating organisms engineered for a specific task. Currently, the synthetic genome developed by Gibson only works in mycoplasma, and so his team needs to find more cells that could act as hosts.
"A major push over the next five years will be to build the platforms that allow genetic programming and pathways to put together systems of dozens of circuits and hundreds of genes," said Voigt. "The work is a challenge to the community to be able to actually design systems at the genome scale."
If the hurdles can be overcome, one of the first applications could be biofuels that don't compete with food stock. Various companies and research organizations, including Synthetic Genomics, which was founded by scientist J. Craig Venter, are pushing ahead in the hopes that the science can catch up with need for new energy sources in coming years.
This story is part of a series covering MIT Technology Review's Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2011 list. You can read the previous parts of the series here.