Bioethics Blogs

Synthetic Chromosomes

A team of scientists announced this week that it had successfully created one of the sixteen chromosomes found in yeast cells, marking a meaningful step forward in that part of genetic engineering dubbed synthetic biology. This is the first time an entire chromosome has been synthesized. Moreover, the chromosome was heavily edited, not simply copied from nature. According to a story in The Scientist, the researchers deleted some genes, changed others, and added still others in order to facilitate the synthesis and make it easier for researchers to alter the genome in still other ways later on. In spite of the extensive changes, yeast cells containing the synthetic chromosome apparently function normally, which in itself is scientifically interesting because it sheds light on the degree to which genomes can be changed without rendering them nonfunctional. Given all this, the research is a notable advance in synthetic biology of eukaryotic organisms.

The announcement is also an interesting case study in the mystique of “synthesis” that surrounds synthetic biology. As is often enough the case in synthetic biology, the initial, fundamental reason to do the research was that synthesis just looks like such a great triumph. As the leader in the effort explained to The Scientist, they were first “drawn to the project for ‘the Mount Everest reason: it’s there and you should do it.’” Some possible tangible benefits are also mentioned in the story – maybe we’ll discover ways of using yeast cells to make medicine – but these benefits provide a secondary rationale, not the chief motivation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.