Scientific breakthrough holds promise for biofuels and beer!

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University tinkered with snippets of DNA to create the first synthetic yeast chromosome

By Sarah Gray
March 28, 2014 7:00PM (UTC)
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A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University genetically engineered an entirely synthetic yeast chromosome. Though it is just one out of 16 chromosomes that make up the genome. The team's leader Jef Boeke told Popular Mechanics, "Yeasts have 16 chromosomes, and we've just completed chromosome 3. Now it's just a matter of money and time."

Genetically modified organisms are not new; humans have modified plants to be resistant to viruses, or to harm insects. And of course, much needed debate swirls around the consumption of GMOS, and farming practices by generally harmful agro-giants like Monsanto.


In terms of modifying yeast, MIT Technology Review also points out that humans have been manipulating yeast for many thousands of years. The wild fungus has been tamed to help us bake bread and make beer. When scientifically modified, the yeast is used to produce medicine, and biofuel. Simple baker's yeast was modified to produce tons of artemisinin acid which is then converted into artemisinin, which combats malaria.

A completely synthetic yeast could be genetically altered to create medicine and biofuels, such as corn ethanol,  or even change the taste of our beer. This chromosome was first designed by scientists on the computer and was then spliced together by undergraduates in a "Build-A-Genome" class. These students strung together the base pairs (A, C, T and G) of DNA into 750 base pair long segments. Those chunks were then assembled by researchers into longer strands and inserted into the yeast.

Popular Mechanic's William Herkewitz (full disclosure, he was my peer at New York University) looked into what this means for the brewing industry. Herkewitz spoke to Chris Baugh, a research scientist at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Baugh spoke as a beer researcher and enthusiast and not as a spokesperson for the brewing company. He is excited about the possibilities this new scientific development could hold for the future of beer. He told Herkewitz:


"Right now, the issue brewers face is that a lot of yeasts will produce these amazing flavors, but they may not ferment right. But if you could tailor-make your yeasts, with the understanding of what genes code for the different flavor molecules, well, that opens the doors to the mass production of beer with totally untasted characteristics."

However, it is unlikely that we'll be sipping on synthetic yeast beer any time soon. Researchers have not yet synthesized the entire genome, and as of now the public is far from trusting anything GMO.

h/t MIT Technology Review, Popular Mechanics

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Beer Dna Gmos Science Synthetic Yeast Yeast