Creating DNA from scratch in a lab

Imagine wheat resistant to climate change or trees that purify water supplies. That is not too far-fetched. It took 10 years, but Dr. Jef Boeke and scientists in 11 other labs on four continents finally figured out a way to create DNA from scratch. And it starts with yeast.

Boeke is the director at the Institute For Systems Genetics at New York University Langone Health. He and his international team of scientists rewrote the genetic code for yeast and created a synthetic version, which could produce vaccines, medicines and fuels.

"There are a lot of petroleum products in this office. That printer is made out of plastic," Boeke said. "It turns out you can make a lot of these materials, and the starting chemicals to make those materials, by producing them biologically in a very green way."

Scientists first use a computer program to alter the natural sequence of yeast and then head to the Boeke Lab, where scientists are putting their research in motion, literally. Machines take baker's yeast to assemble DNA. The place kind of smells like a bakery—but the yeast being used is helping to create big portions of artificial DNA.

Once the new sequence is created, it is used as a blueprint to build the artificial DNA, then inserted into yeast cells. Researchers monitor the result to make sure it is growing and functioning properly with the new sequence.

"We are limiting our work in this area to work on human cells that can be grown in a dish and maybe they can make small models of human organs so we can use it to help develop therapies for human diseases that affect our organ systems," Boeke said. "They could affect how long-lived our cells are, how they respond to drugs."

"It is a new idea to create DNA from scratch and for many people this has raised concerns about scientific power and about the notion that are we acting in the place of God?" said Dr. Laurie Zoloth, the dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. While she agrees with Boeke's work, she said believes the focus should first be on plants, animals, and then—once scientists see how it works—on humans.

"Then, and only then, if the technology is safe, if it's reliable, then I think we can begin to talk about the use in humans for human disease," she said.

Boeke said he hopes to witness his technology help with treating melanoma patients at the hospital.

"This would involve some DNA writing in a mouse," he said. "And the information we would extract from that would potentially allow us to come up with some really powerful therapeutic options for people who don't have them right now."

Because many believe science should serve humanity. And what better way then helping heal those who suffer.