According to a press release, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) have built the first genome of a bacterium entirely designed by a computer algorithm. Caulobacter ethensis-2.0 exists only in the form of a very large DNA molecule and not as a corresponding organism. It is based on the genome of a freshwater bacterium, Caulobacter crescentus. The researchers radically altered the bacterial genome using a computer algorithm they developed, synthesized the genome in segments and pieced it together after testing the functions. They used the redundancy of the genetic code and in rewriting the genome did not modify the information at the protein level.
The new method is also a litmus test to see whether biologists have correctly understood genetics and to highlight possible gaps in their knowledge, explained ETH Professor Beat Christen in the press release. Naturally, the rewritten genome can contain only information that the researchers have actually understood. Possible additional information that is “hidden” in the DNA sequence and has not yet been understood by scientists would have been lost in the process of creating the new code. The researchers found out that only about 580 of the 680 artificial genes were functional. They now want to develop an improved genome version 3.0.
“We believe that it will also soon be possible to produce functional bacterial cells with such a genome,” says Beat Christen. This holds great potential. Among the possible future applications are synthetic microorganisms that could be utilized in biotechnology for the production of complex pharmaceutically active molecules or vitamins, for example. ETH highlights that this technology can be employed universally for all microorganisms, not just Caulobacter. Another possibility would be the production of DNA vaccines.