Imperial College London

Imperial scientists lead UK's contribution to the first man-made yeast


yeast growing on a petri dish

Work is beginning at Imperial to build and test a man-made chromosome, the UK's contribution to the first entirely artificial yeast.

Scientists hope to complete the synthetic genome by 2017, and use it to design new strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast that go beyond their current ability to produce beer and bread. Instead, the new yeasts will be able to create valuable chemicals, antibiotics, vaccines or biofuels.

In a speech at the Biobricks Foundation Sixth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology, held at Imperial, the UK's Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP announced national funding worth nearly one million pounds to support the UK's contribution to the international Synthetic Yeast 2.0 consortium.

The consortium includes researchers from universities in the USA, China and India, who will now meet to discuss the next steps for the project.

"This research is truly ground breaking and pushes the boundaries of synthetic biology," Mr Willetts said in an official statement. "Thanks to this investment, UK scientists will be at the centre of an international effort using yeast - which gives us everything from beer to biofuels – to provide new research techniques and unparalleled insights into genetics. This will impact important industrial sectors like life sciences and agriculture.”

Imperial's Dr Tom Ellis is leading the UK team to build and test the yeast's Synthetic Chromosome XI working with Professor Paul Freemont. Both are based at the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial.

Dr Tom Ellis, Lecturer in Synthetic Biology in Imperial's Department of Bioengineering, said: "We are excited to be welcoming our new international consortium partners to London to discuss Sc 2.0. Having recently secured funding for the UK to be part of this ground breaking project, we are looking forward to getting started and being part of the action. It's a perfect fit for our work in synthetic biology here at Imperial, where we really view yeast as a tiny factory that can be tooled-up to produce new molecules. A synthetic genome will allow us to reprogram yeast and our goal is to use it to produce new antibiotics as resistance arises to existing ones."

When completed it will be the first time scientists have built the whole genome of a eukaryotic organism – those organisms, like animals and plants, which store DNA within a nucleus. Scientists can then design different strains of synthetic yeast that contain genes to make commercially valuable products such as chemicals, vaccines or biofuels.

Now we have the opportunity to adapt yeasts further, turning them into predictable and robust hosts for manufacturing the complex products we need for modern living.

– Professor Paul Freemont

Co-director of Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation

The S. cerevisiae genome was picked for the project because its 6,000 genes make it relatively small and scientists are already very familiar with it; yeast was the first eukaryotic organism to have its genome completely sequenced. 

The synthetic yeast genome will be tailored to aid research and is expected to give new and detailed insights into many aspects of genetics including genome organisation, structure and evolution, as well as advance the exciting new field of synthetic biology.

Professor Freemont, Co-director of Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, said: "Yeasts have evolved over millions of years, making energy from sugars and excreting alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. Humans have adapted these organisms to our advantage, using their by-products to make alcoholic drinks and risen baked goods. Now we have the opportunity to adapt yeasts further, turning them into predictable and robust hosts for manufacturing the complex products we need for modern living."

The project originated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, and is being co-ordinated by Professor Jef Boeke of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

Prof Boeke said: “Sc 2.0, once completed, will provide unparalleled opportunities for asking profound questions about biology in new and interesting ways, such as: How much genome scrambling generates a new species? How many genes can we delete from the genome and still have a healthy yeast? And how can an organism adapt its gene networks to cope with the loss of an important gene?  Moreover, genome scrambling may find many uses in biotechnology, for example in the development of yeast that can tolerate higher ethanol levels.”

The £970,000 funding for the Sc 2.0 UK Genome Engineering Resource (SUGER) has been approved by national funding agencies, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) with co-funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Alongside BBSRC and EPSRC, major funders for the Sc 2.0 consortium members in their respective countries include the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Energy, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and the Tsinghua University Initiative Scientific Research Program.



Simon Levey

Simon Levey
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Genomics, Research, Synthetic-biology
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