June 29, 2007 Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) have announced the results of work on genome transplantation methods allowing them to transform one type of bacteria into another type dictated by the transplanted chromosome. The work, published online in the journal Science, by JCVI’s Carole Lartigue, Ph.D. and colleagues, outlines the methods and techniques used to change one bacterial species, Mycoplasma capricolum into another, Mycoplasma mycoides Large Colony (LC), by replacing one organism’s genome with the other one’s genome.
“The successful completion of this research is important because it is one of the key proof of principles in synthetic genomics that will allow us to realize the ultimate goal of creating a synthetic organism,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., president and chairman, JCVI. “We are committed to this research as we believe that synthetic genomics holds great promise in helping to solve issues like climate change and in developing new sources of energy.”
Methods and techniques
The JCVI team devised several key steps to enable the genome transplantation. First, an antibiotic selectable marker gene was added to the M. mycoides LC chromosome to allow for selection of living cells containing the transplanted chromosome. Then the team purified the DNA or chromosome from M. mycoides LC so that it was free from proteins (called naked DNA). This M. mycoides LC chromosome was then transplanted into the M. capricolum cells. After several rounds of cell division, the recipient M. capricolum chromosome disappeared having been replaced by the donor M. mycoides LC chromosome, and the M. capricolum cells took on all the phenotypic characteristics of M. mycoides LC cells.
As a test of the success of the genome transplantation, the team used two methods — 2D gel electrophoresis and protein sequencing, to prove that all the expressed proteins were now the ones coded for by the M. mycoides LC chromosome. Two sets of antibodies that bound specifically to cell surface proteins from each cell were reacted with transplant cells, to demonstrate that the membrane proteins switch to those dictated by the transplanted chromosome not the recipient cell chromosome. The new, transformed organisms show up as bright blue colonies in images of blots probed with M. mycoides LC specific antibody.
The group chose to work with these species of mycoplasmas for several reasons — the small genomes of these organisms which make them easier to work with, their lack of cell walls, and the team’s experience and expertise with mycoplasmas. The mycoplasmas used in the transplantation experiment are also relatively fast growing, allowing the team to ascertain success of the transplantation sooner than with other species of mycoplasmas.
According to Dr. Lartigue, “While we are excited by the results of our research, we are continuing to perfect and refine our techniques and methods as we move to the next phases and prepare to develop a fully synthetic chromosome.”
Genome transplantation is an essential enabling step in the field of synthetic genomics as it is a key mechanism by which chemically synthesized chromosomes can be activated into viable living cells. The ability to transfer the naked DNA isolated from one species into a second microbial species paves the way for next experiments to transplant a fully synthetic bacterial chromosome into a living organism and if successful, “boot up” the new entity. There are many important applications of synthetic genomics research including development of new energy sources and as means to produce pharmaceuticals, chemicals or textiles.
This research was funded by Synthetic Genomics Inc.
Background and Ethical Considerations
The work described by Lartigue et al. has its genesis in research begun by Dr. Venter and colleagues in the mid-1990’s after sequencing Mycoplasma genitalium and beginning work on the minimal genome project. This area of research, trying to understand the minimal genetic components necessary to sustain life, underwent significant ethical review by a panel of experts at the University of Pennsylvania (Cho et al, Science December 1999:Vol. 286. no. 5447, pp. 2087 – 2090). The bioethical group's independent deliberations, published at the same time as the scientific minimal genome research, resulted in a unanimous decision that there were no strong ethical reasons why the work should not continue as long as the scientists involved continued to engage public discussion.
In 2003 Drs. Venter, Smith and Hutchison made the first significant strides in the development of a synthetic genome by their work in assembling the 5,386 base pair bacteriophage φX174 (phi X). They did so using short, single strands of synthetically produced, commercially available DNA (known as oligonucleotides) and using an adaptation of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), known as polymerase cycle assembly (PCA), to build the phi X genome. The team produced the synthetic phi X in just 14 days.
Dr. Venter and the team at JCVI continue to be concerned with the societal implications of their work and the field of synthetic genomics generally. As such, the Institute’s policy team, along with the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), were funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for a 15-month study to explore the risks and benefits of this emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism. After several workshops and public sessions the group is set to publish a report in summer 2007 outlining options for the field and its researchers.
About the J. Craig Venter Institute
The J. Craig Venter Institute is a not-for-profit research institute dedicated to the advancement of the science of genomics; the understanding of its implications for society; and communication of those results to the scientific community, the public, and policymakers. Founded by J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., the JCVI is home to approximately 500 scientists and staff with expertise in human and evolutionary biology, genetics, bioinformatics/informatics, information technology, high-throughput DNA sequencing, genomic and environmental policy research, and public education in science and science policy. The legacy organizations of the JCVI are: The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), The Center for the Advancement of Genomics (TCAG), the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), the Joint Technology Center (JTC), and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation. The JCVI is a 501 (c)(3) organization. For additional information, please visit http://www.JCVI.org.
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