UK scientists have created an artificial version of the stomach bug E. coli that is based on an entirely synthetic form of DNA.
At the same time, Syn61 as they are calling it, has had its genetic code significantly redesigned.
It’s been done in a manner that will pave the way for designer bacteria that could manufacture new catalysts, drugs, proteins and materials.
Other scientists working in synthetic biology have hailed the development.
Genetic engineer Prof George Church, from Harvard University, US, has hailed the work as “a major breakthough”.
Dr Tom Ellis, a reader in synthetic biology at Imperial College London called it super-impressive.
Syn61’s 4 million genetic letters make this the largest entire genome to be synthesised from scratch.
They were ordered in short segments from a laboratory supplies company, before being assembled into half-million-letter lengths in yeast cells by natural cellular machinery.
At this point, the genome engineers’ job became a bit like a railway engineer’s maintenance programme – replacing the E. coli genome piecewise – section by section – rather than all at once.
“The bacterial chromosome is so big,” team leader Jason Chin told the BBC, “we needed an approach that would let us see what had gone wrong if there had been any mistakes along the way.”
So it was only after each half-million-letter segment had been tested in partially synthetic bacteria that the eight segments were brought together in Syn61.
The approach is more cautious than that used by bio-entrepreneur, Craig Venter, whose microbial replicant based on the tiny organism Mycoplasma genitaliumwas presented to the world in 2010.
That was a milestone, Tom Ellis recalls, but consumed the efforts over many years of an entire institute, set up, run and named by Venter.
The new work was conducted by a