Australia joins project to create artificial life


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 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.

Professor Boeke said it involved replacing natural organisms with synthetic ones rather than generation an artificial blueprint.

“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,” she said.

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.

The Adelaide-based Australian Wine Research Institute is a partner with Macquarie University in the Yeast 2.0 project and the Managing Director of the Institute Dr Dan Johnson said yeast is important to the wine-making process.

“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,” Dr Johnson said.

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

“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,” said Professor Sakkie Pretorius at Macquarie University.

Environmental group, Friends of the Earth believe 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,” said Jeremy Tagar.

Concerns about synthetic yeast escaping from the lab have been dismissed by the Yeast 2.0 project leader.

“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,” said Professor Jef Boeke.

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