In what may well be one of the most significant breakthroughs in genetics, scientists have successfully create the world's first artificial chromosome. The breakthrough may have lead to significant advances in biofuel technology and medicine.
The creation of the synthetic chromosome was the product of the tireless efforts of an international team of scientists. The team was led by the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center's Institute for Systems Genetics director Jef Boeke. The team published its findings in the online journal Science.
"Our research moves the needle in synthetic biology from theory to reality," said Boeke. "This work represents the biggest step yet in an international effort to construct the full genome of synthetic yeast"
The long term implications of this discovery are far reaching and can drive innovation in a variety of fields. Scientists are now looking at possible applications in the fields of energy, medicine and food production.
In the medical field, the successful creation of an artificial chromosome may lead to the development of custom made microorganisms that are designed to treat specific diseases, injuries and afflictions.
For food production, specially designed organisms can also be created to create the raw materials necessary for food. Moreover, designer organisms can also be tailored for specific tasks in food production and agriculture. From nitrogen fixation in the soil to pest control, the possible applications are endless.
The energy sector is another potential beneficiary of the new technique. Microorganisms are essential to the production of biofuels. Custom made organisms can drastically increase biofuel production capabilities. Moreover, specially designed microorganisms may even have the potential to create novel fuels in the future resulting in a renewable and sustainable energy source.
While the possible applications of these custom made chromosomes all sound appealing, further studies will be required before the technique can be refined. In fact, it may take years before a practical application is developed and tested in the field.
"It is the most extensively altered chromosome ever built. But the milestone that really counts is integrating it into a living yeast cell," Boeke added. "We have shown that yeast cells carrying this synthetic chromosome are remarkably normal. They behave almost identically to wild yeast cells, only they now possess new capabilities and can do things that wild yeast cannot."
There is also a psychological barrier that will need to be crossed before this type of technology can be seriously studied and applied. Across various fields and sectors, genetic modification is still considered as a potentially dangerous subject. While the risks may seem high, the potential benefits are virtually innumerable and difficult to ignore. Moreover, a deeper understanding of the long term effects of designer microorganisms will undoubtedly be necessary for further progress to continue.