It’s been a big day for medical science news, but then again, you could say that about pretty much any day. Suffice it to say, the future is going to be damn interesting, thanks in part to rapid and numerous advances in biotechnology. Here’s one more to add to that list: the creation of a synthetic—and possibly improved—yeast chromosome.
Chromosomes bundles of genetic information inside cells that dictate organism development. They also help keep genetic material safe as it transfers from cell to cell. A yeast cell has 16 chromosomes, and a team of scientists, including dozens of undergraduate students from New York University Langone Medical Center, synthesized one.
They didn’t just replicate the chromosome, they actually made a new version of it. They deleted segments they deemed extraneous or repetitive, as well as junk DNA that doesn’t contribute to survival of the organism. Beyond eliminating the extra material, they also made other significant changes—about 50,000 of them. The scientists created 273,871 DNA base pairs when they built the chromosome they call SynIII. The original chromosome has 316,667 (humans have over 3 billion). But despite the changes, the yeast thrived, grew, performed the sugar-to-alcohol conversions that comprise yeast’s primary duty, and reproduced.
The team tinkered with it even more, adding properties that didn’t previously exist, such as a chemical that scientists can activate that rearrange the chromosome into different patterns and variations for future modifications. Think of it like a modular chromosome. These techniques could be used to design yeast specifically for medications and vaccines, or fuels such as bioethanol.
Unlike bacteria and viruses, yeast is an eukaryote, or a single-cell organism with a nucleus, similar to the cells of humans, animals, and plants. Theoretically, what’s done with yeast could be done on a human cell. Theoretically. I’m not volunteering to be the first guinea pig, given how much more complex the human genome is, but they have to start somewhere. Scientists believe that eventually such techniques will boost the human immune system and create new ways to immunize against and treat diseases—more pieces of the immortality puzzle, it seems. It’s also possible that scientists could design chromosomes to provide humans with brand new abilities. Sounds a lot like DARPA’s plans, if you ask me. Maybe we’re all destined to become super soldiers.