Playing God

I distinctly remember the e-mail that my genome biology teacher ‘Dr.Vani’ sent us when I was in my Masters’ final semester . We were supposed to make a Minimum-Human-Genome, the e-mail ended with the phrase, “Enjoy playing God!” The whole class was divided into 4 groups, all of us worked independently and thus different group came up with different conclusions. One group said we can’t play God, the other said we don’t have enough information to play God, and one even came up with a prospective minimum-genome. I consider that project the most enriching experience of my 16 years of education.

Recently, I read in the newspaper that scientists in John Hopkins university tried something similar to what we had tried, and they were successful in it. They created a synthetic yeast chromosome. Why I am I considering yeast as something similar to humans? Because just like humans they are also a Eukaryote- an organism with bound cell organelles and an enclosed nucleus. The  synthetic chromosome is being called DIY chromosome and it was first created in-silico, which means its structure was first synthesized inside a computer. We all know that computer chips are made up of silicon,this is where the term in-silico has been derived from.

The Scientists at John Hopkins applied almost similar approach that we were using in our little project, they removed the unnecessary Introns, the repeating sequence at the ends-the telomere as well as some of the genes that were coding for Transfer-RNAs. It was because the yeast need only about 45 transfer RNA’s but they have them in an excess of approximately  400. The most pleasing thing for me was that, the yeast survived with the Chromosome that the team created. It has lived for almost 150 generations now. This is a proof that DIY chromosome is stable, and that we were on the right track.  Please don’t misunderstand that the discovery happened long ago, 150 generations have passed because of the short life span of yeast.

The success of this project has now made DIY chromosome project scientist-Jeff Boeke,the head of upcoming Synthetic Yeast genome Project. And its not very far away that similar Synthetic human genome project will be underway. But,till then all the best for playing  ” God of small things”.

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One thought on “Playing God

  1. As already pointed out the synthetic chromosome or the DIY chromosome synthesized in the John Hopkins University was first conceived inside a computer (in-silico) and then its tangible version was impregnated in the yeast. The chromosome has survived for more than 150 generations which is a evidence to its stability. Although microbes are used for a wide range of applications ranging from digestion of oil spills by pseudomonas putida(grey biotechnology) to production of biosimilars like interferon (red biotechnology), this is the first time synthetic genes have been inserted inside a microbe to produce desired behaviour. Earlier, there was a limit to which desired qualities can be developed using recombinant gene engineering as the maximum that could have been achieved was a mix of various desired characteristics that are already present in a living being. But, the invention could mean that even genome with out-of-the world qualities are synthetically manufactured and impregnated in various microbes. This obviously paves path for the use of microbes in various applications like production of bio-ethanol, bio-diesel at commercial scale, manufacturing pharmaceutical products that can treat non-curable diseases, increasing farm production, prevention of weeds and pests, industrial applications and what not. The invention could mean that some years down the line, microbes with synthetic genomes are used in every sphere of life. However, the problem is that the ramifications of the invention are not limited to microbes. The results can well be extended to human being in times to come as humans too are made up of eukaryotic cells, i.e. cells with nucleus and cell organelles enclosed by membrane. And it’s not difficult to imagine the problems if the results are misused to ‘manufacture’ humans with super powers. This can potentially lead to a situation where everyone would want a ‘designer baby’. We might see Spiderman and Batman for real.

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