First designer gene created in living organism

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Jef Boeke of New York University has recently made significant strides in the field of genetic engineering through his experiments with the genetics of yeast.

By Marli Horwitz, MS&T Editor

What one typically thinks of when something is described as being “designed” are items such as the latest smartwatch, Apple’s newest iPhone update, spacesuits for planet Mars, and glasses you can check your email on. But what is being talked about this week cannot be designed and sold in Google Play or at your nearest AT&T Store. This week, we are talking about designer babies.

It was four years ago that the first synthetic bacterial cell was able to be created and replicated, and simultaneously initiated talk and debate about the morality in the production of “designer babies,” where future parents may be able to have some say in the genetic coding of their offspring.

Today, as detailed in a recent CNN post, “research moves the needle in synthetic biology from theory to reality,” according to New York University geneticist Jef Boeke. Boeke and a team of 500 scientists from around the globe were able to create a designer chromosome and insert it into a cell. The cell, to their success, survived and replicated, continuously carrying that chromosome.

What does this mean for us? The new chromosome created was placed in the cell of an organism more similar to those of humans than you may expect: Brewer’s yeast. As you may remember from that biology class you took to cross off the Gettysburg lab requirement, human cells are eukaryotes, in that the cells have a nucleus surrounded by membrane. Brewer’s yeast cells are also eukaryotes.

This creation of a eukaryotic chromosome completely from scratch is the first of its kind. It has been named “synll” by Boeke and his research team. The process, done through computer modeling, took approximately seven years and the help of an additional 60 students, according to the CNN post.

Brewer’s yeast has about 6,000 genes, of which about 2,000 are shared with humans. The yeast is much simpler to study, naturally, which helps in creating an entire yeast cell from scratch. This would necessitate the creation of 16 chromosomes.

Thus, creating the chromosomes necessary for a designer baby, at least completely from scratch, is most likely a far step; Boeke told CNN that though the idea is there, he is not planning on designing the set of synthetic human chromosomes.

However, genetics continues to improve, as Boeke did report that in attempting to create the entire yeast cell, he and his team should be able to concurrently improve it. This could mean perhaps encoding the cell to create new fuels, medicines, and vaccines. Though genetically designing and producing a “baby 5s” is not yet on the charts, genetically altering chromosomes and thus cells to our benefit most certainly is.

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Author: Brendan Raleigh

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