Aussies join project to create artificial life


(Transcript from World News Radio)


Australian scientists have joined a global project to create artificial life.



They say the project, if successful, promises to lead to huge advances in areas including medicine, agriculture, and biofuels.


But the scientists also acknowledge potential public concerns about the way they’re shifting the boundaries of science and technology.


Van Nguyen has the details.


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The international project, called simply Yeast 2.0, stems from a breakthrough achievement in a laboratory in the US in 2010.


Synthetic biologists at the Craig Venter Institute created a living thing, designed by a computer, and with no ancestors.


They had artificially constructed a genome – that is, the full genetic material – of a single-cell fungus – the variety of humble yeast that’s used in bakeries and breweries.


Then in March this year, a team led by Professor Jef Boeke of New York University artificially created one of the 16 chromosomes that make up this yeast.


It wasn’t a matter of generating an artificial blueprint, and then creating living organisms from it.


Rather, Professor Boeke says, it involved replacing natural organisms with synthetic ones.


“We start with a natural yeast cell, well it is a domesticated yeast cell obviously that grows in our laboratory, but we always start with a living cell. We’re not creating life from inanimate materials.”


Professor Boeke suggests the information in yeast’s genome can be thought of like an encyclopedia, with each of the 16 chromosomes representing one volume.


He says these volumes can be broken down into chapters, paragraphs, words and the individual letters – the genome’s DNA.


“We assembled the chromosome piece by piece, building it up from letters to words to paragraphs to chapters to, eventually, the volume.”


As head of the Yeast 2.0 project, Professor Boeke has brought in fellow researchers from China, Britain, Singapore, India and now, Australia.


The aim: to develop all 16 chromosomes of yeast, then put them together to make the world’s first synthetic yeast by 2017.


Backed by $1 million dollars in funding from the NSW Government, Macquarie University has just become the lead institution in the Australian part of the project.


Team leader in Sydney is the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Sakkie Pretorius.


He says Macquarie’s involvement stems just from an email conversation with Jef Boeke.


“It’s purely because the time is absolutely a hundred per cent right for synthetic biology to take off in Australia and it was just that casual email exchange between me and Jef initially that catalysed this whole project.”


Yeast is vital to many industries including medicine, bio-fuels and wine and beer production.


The Adelaide-based Australian Wine Research Institute is a partner with Macquarie University in the Yeast 2.0 project.


Managing Director of the Institute¸ Dr Dan Johnson, explains the importance of yeast in the wine-making process.


“If you take grapes from the same vineyard and ferment those grapes using three different yeast strains, you can end up with three quite different wines. And so if a wine maker is seeking to produce a certain type of wine style and satisfy a certain market segment, making a very deliberate choice around the yeast strain that is added during fermentation can allow them to tailor that wine specifically to that market segment.”


Professor Sakkie Pretorius is keen to stress that the Yeast 2.0 project does not involve the same processes as genetic modification.


Rather, he says synthetic biology involves creating entirely new genomes, not modifying existing genes.


Dan Johnson at the Wine Research Institute also emphasises that genetically-modified yeast won’t be used for commercial winemaking in Australia.


“This project will not lead to the use of genetically-modified yeast in Australian winemaking at least. There’s a very clear policy position around that. But it will pave the way for information to be generated which will then be used to create products that are suitable for use in industry.”


Synthetic biologist at Imperial College London, Dr Tom Ellis, is involved in the British part of Yeast 2.0.


His team is responsible for yeast chromosome number 11.


“Work we’d been doing on DNA assembly and genetic engineering in yeast perfectly fit with the idea of scaling up to the next level, to synthetic genome. So we’re really interested in understanding how you could in the future, building genomes to design and so this is a fantastic bridging project towards that where we can tackle all of the aspects of genome engineering, zooming in on a chromosome and working out what’s needed and what’s not, to build that up.”


While the Yeast 2.0 project to create artificial life is a long way from trying to create human life, scientists say it should lead to human applications.


Scientists are already working on ways to potentially use the technology to create antibiotics to kill drug-resistant bacteria.


And it could also lead to a way to manufacture human blood.

Professor Sakkie Pretorius at Macquarie University says the researchers are mindful of the potential public concerns.


“It’s very important for us in Australia, if we embark on a journey like this, that we do it hand in hand with the social scientist, with the public, with government so that we have the right policy frameworks around us so that we can apply this very exciting technology for the benefit of society in general.”


Jeremy Tagar from the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, believes synthetic biologists are prioritising short-term improvements and profits with scant regard to unanticipated and potentially catastrophic consequences.


“What we’re talking about is the creation of life that has never existed, without any idea of how it will function in natural systems and in the human body. And to release that without being totally assured of its safety is just plain crazy and should never happen.”


Jeremy Tagar says people should be concerned if synthetic yeast escapes from the lab and mixes with wild yeast strains.

However, Yeast 2.0 project leader Professor Jef Boeke dismisses such concerns.


“As an additional safety strategy, we are pursuing a number of so-called safety switches, a genome safeguard that can be introduced into the yeast strain to prevent any multiplication in the wild, should it be released. But I want to emphasize also that all of this work is done in a laboratory with a lock on the door and so on. There’s no real reason to think that it would ever get out into the environment.”


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