New Delhi: Aiming for a place at the high table of scientists in the quest of creating artificial life, India will join an ambitious international project that aims to develop a synthetic version of yeast, which apart from leavening bread and brewing wine could be used to clean up coal or exude biofuel.
The “Synthetic Yeast 2.0 project” is spearheaded by the Johns Hopkins University in the US and includes Tianjin University and Tsinghua University (China); Imperial College London, The University of Edinburgh (UK); Hong Kong University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chinese University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong); Institut Pasteur (France); and Louvain la Neuve (Belgium).
It will now include New Delhi’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and a $1 million contribution from India, according to Samir Brahmachari, director general, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
IGIB is a lab of CSIR, India’s premium research organization.
“It’s a well established project and we just about managed to sneak in,” said Brahmachari, “but this is a long-term, ambitious project that will significantly expand our capabilities at futuristic biotechnology.”
A formal memorandum of understanding (MoU), or in-principle agreement, for India’s participation in the project is yet to be signed, he added.
Manufacturing synthetic or lab-created yeast is part of an emerging field of biotechnology called “synthetic” biology, where rather than tweak the DNA of living organisms—as in genetically modified plants—scientists attempt to build new organisms from scratch.
The most significant work in this field has been done by J. Craig Venter, whose eponymous research centre has in the last two years not only duplicated an entire bacterium, but also booted up, or brought to life, a natural yeast cell that had its vitals synthesized in a laboratory. “Life is basically a result of a software process,” Venter said in an interview to Mint in 2010.
For the synthetic yeast project, the US scientists have zeroed in on S.cerevisiae, a type of yeast, as the basis for a synthetic genome. This organism has 16 chromosomes and a relatively compact and well-understood genome.
To borrow an analogy coined by biologist Matt Ridley, if DNA is the alphabet on which the code of life is written, chromosomes are the pages and the genome is akin to a book, which is read and translated by a series of molecules, including ribosomes and RNA to synthesize proteins and eventually, complex organisms.
One person familiar with the project, who didn’t want to be identified, said that each participant labs across the world will synthesize one chromosome and the resultant yeast wouldn’t exclusively belong to any group or country in particular.
“The artificial yeast will be nobody’s property,” said this person. “But if a group were to modify this yeast to make it absorb, say methane or for any particular industrial application, that could become proprietary. There can be a wide variety of applications.”
He said the MoU was likely to be signed before the year ends. Though there are no deadlines on when this brand of artificial lab will move beyond being experimental science, investigators connected with the project say that if successfully synthesized S.cerevisiae would be the first artificially created eukaryotic cells, which are the billion-year-old ancestors of all animals.
Project leader Jef Boeke, who heads the initiative out of Johns Hopkins, didn’t respond to an email for comment as of press time. But a detailed description of the scope of the project on his lab’s website says that apart from industrial applications such as ethanol production, the synthetic yeast genome “can be used to answer a wide variety of profound questions about fundamental properties of chromosomes and genome organization... The availability of a fully synthetic genome will allow direct testing of evolutionary questions not otherwise approachable.”
For India to gainfully contribute to the project, it would have to establish a systems and synthetic biology centre, Brahmachari said. “We’ve already got a Rs.100-crore approval from government but it will take most of the 12th Plan period (2012-17) for the project to come up.”