The rise of the bio building

Brewer’s yeast, harnessed by humans since antiquity, is about to enter the 21st century in an enhanced, upgraded guise.

After a 20-year rush of discovery spurred by advances in genomic science, microbiologists are on the threshold of an even more remarkable era, says Ian Paulsen, ARC Laureate Fellow and Macquarie Distinguished Professor. They are on the cusp of being able to ‘build’ microorganisms specifically to address some of the world’s most significant problems.

We are interested in using the synthetic yeast to turn agricultural biomass into industrial compounds
— Ian Paulsen

This research combines advances in chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering, and promises to revolutionise everything from the fuel we use, to the discovery of new drugs.

“We’ve gone from being able to sequence an occasional gene to sequencing the genomes of entire microbial communities, and with synthetic biology we are now no longer bound by nature but can build microorganisms to our own specifications,” he says.

Now Deputy Director of Macquarie University’s Biomolecular Discovery and Design Research Centre, Paulsen was lured back to Australia after 12 years in the United States by Macquarie’s reputation as a world leader in biomolecular technology, and the significant investment it is making in synthetic biology.

We decided to position Macquarie as a leader in the field in Australia and globally
— Ian Paulsen

Particularly exciting is the centre’s contribution to the Yeast 2.0 project, a collaboration of leading international institutions in the UK, US, China, Japan, Singapore and Australia, which aims to create a novel, rationalised version of the genome of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used in winemaking, baking and brewing since ancient times.

The project will build 16 designer synthetic chromosomes encompassing about 12 million base pairs of DNA. Macquarie’s role is to synthesise two complete chromosomes for incorporation into the world’s first synthetic eukaryotic genome.

The team has already completed one of the synthetic chromosomes, and Paulsen is confident that the second will be complete by the end of the year.

The project could allow researchers to directly test evolutionary questions about the properties of chromosomes that would otherwise not be possible. The work will also be applied to address resource shortages, Paulsen says. Yeast could be engineered as a method for producing chemicals that are currently derived from oil, for example.

We are interested in using the synthetic yeast as a starting point to turn agricultural biomass into industrial compounds that are critical elements of our modern world, but are currently made from fossil fuels
— Ian Paulsen

This article was first published by Springer Nature. Read the original article here.