Scientists take huge step towards making world’s first synthetic yeast genome

Artwork of engineered yeast colonies producing different pigment colours made by
Artwork of engineered yeast colonies producing different pigment colours made by Aleks Wudzinska (NYU Langone University, USA). Credit to: Cell Press

A UK-based team from Imperial College London and the University of Nottingham have produced a synthetic chromosome for a yeast cell.

A team of scientists, led by Professor Tom Ellis of Imperial College London and Dr Ben Blount from the University of Nottingham , have built a synthetic version of yeast’s Chromosome XI.

Chromosome XI is one of the 16 chromosomes that make up the genome of yeast and has a DNA sequence of over 660,000 base pairs - as described in Cell Genomics .

Replacing natural chromosomes

The synthetic chromosome, called SynXI, can replace the natural chromosome while the yeast cell can still grow as normal. Scientists have engineered the chromosome to possess special features not found in its natural counterpart, to allow manipulation to fine tune yeast’s role in making new medicines and biotechnologies.

As part of the 15-year International Synthetic Yeast Genome Collaboration Project (Sc2.0), another 14 synthetic chromosomes have also been completed and released by other teams.

The international consortium - comprised of scientists across US, China, Singapore, UK, France, Australia and Japan - plans to publish and complete the world’s first man-made eukaryote genome next year by bringing all these chromosomes together.

Co-lead author Professor Tom Ellis from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, said: "Yeast - an organism with the innate ability to stitch DNA together - was domesticated many years ago for baking and brewing. More recently, we have harnessed its unique properties to create new chemicals and model how the human cell works. We are only just unlocking its potential.

"The project shows that a computer-designed chromosome - assembled from chemicals and building blocks - can function as well as its natural version. This first paper can further our knowledge and understanding of how the yeast genome can aid us in solving the pressing issues of today, from treatment-resistant cancers to greener bioproduction."

Dr Ben Blount, one of the lead scientists on the project, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham. He said: "The synthetic chromosomes are massive technical achievements in their own right, but will also open up a huge range of new abilities for how we study and apply biology. This could range from creating new microbial strains for greener bioproduction, through to helping us understand and combat disease.

"The synthetic yeast genome project is a fantastic example of science on a large scale that has been achieved by a large group of researchers from around the world. It’s been a great experience to be part of such a monumental effort, where all involved were striving towards the same shared goal."

International project

As well as the leads of Nottingham and Imperial College London, the UK team also includes scientists from the universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, and Manchester in the UK, as well as John Hopkins University and New York University Langone Health in the USA and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Querétaro in Mexico.