Sci­en­tists build DNA from scratch to al­ter life’s blueprint

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Mal­colm Ritter Mary Altaffer, The As­so­ci­ated Press

NEW YORK» At Jef Boeke’s lab, you can whiff an odor that seems out of place, as if they were bak­ing bread here.

But he and his col­leagues are cook­ing up some­thing else al­to­gether: yeast that works with chunks of man-made DNA.

Sci­en­tists have long been able to make spe­cific changes in the DNA code. Now, they’re tak­ing the more rad­i­cal step of start­ing over, build­ing re­designed life forms from scratch. Boeke, a re­searcher at New York Uni­ver­sity, di­rects an in­ter­na­tional team of 11 labs on four con­ti­nents work­ing to “rewrite” the yeast genome, fol­low­ing a de­tailed plan they pub­lished in March.

Their work is part of a bold and con­tro­ver­sial pur­suit aimed at cre­at­ing cus­tom­made DNA codes to be in­serted into liv­ing cells to change how they func­tion, or even pro­vide a treat­ment for dis­eases. Some­day it could help give sci­en­tists the pro­found and un­set­tling abil­ity to cre­ate en­tirely new or­gan­isms.

The genome is the en­tire ge­netic code of a liv­ing thing. Learn­ing how to make one from scratch, Boeke said, means “you re­ally can con­struct some­thing that’s com­pletely new.”

The re­search may re­veal ba­sic, hid­den rules that gov­ern the struc­ture and func­tion­ing of genomes. But it also opens the door to life with new and use­ful char­ac­ter­is­tics, like mi­crobes or mam­mal cells that are bet­ter than cur­rent ones at pump­ing out med­i­ca­tions in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal fac­to­ries, or new vac­cines. The right mod­i­fi­ca­tions might make yeast ef­fi­ciently pro­duce new bio­fu­els, Boeke says.

Some sci­en­tists look fur­ther into the fu­ture and see things like trees that pu­rify wa­ter sup­plies and plants that de­tect ex­plo­sives at air­ports and shop­ping malls.

Also on the hori­zon is re­design­ing hu­man DNA. That’s not to make ge­net­i­cally al­tered peo­ple, sci­en­tists stress. In­stead, the syn­thetic DNA would be put into cells to make them bet­ter at pump­ing out phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal pro­teins, for ex­am­ple, or per­haps to en­gi­neer stem cells as a safer source of lab-grown tis­sue and or­gans for trans­plant­ing into pa­tients.

Some have found the idea of re­mak­ing hu­man DNA dis­con­cert­ing, and sci­en­tists plan to get guid­ance from ethi­cists and the pub­lic be­fore they try it.

Still, re­design­ing DNA is alarm­ing to some. Lau­rie Zoloth of North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, a bioethi­cist fol­low­ing the ef­fort, is con­cerned about mak­ing or­gan­isms with “prop­er­ties we can­not fully know.” And the work would dis­turb peo­ple who be­lieve cre­at­ing life from scratch would give hu­mans un­war­ranted power, she said.

“It is not only a science project,” Zoloth said. “It is an eth­i­cal and moral and the­o­log­i­cal pro­posal of sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tions.”

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