London bread shortage in the 1970s. Yeast genetics are at the vanguard of synthetic biology. Photo: Getty
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Welcome to the age of synthetic biology – it’s all about yeast

We don’t need evolution any more – we've outsourced the processes to ourselves.

Evolution’s retirement plan has been 3.6 billion years in the making. With the appearance of the modern human being, we now have an organism that can take over from natural processes and engineer biology in entirely new ways. Welcome to the age of synthetic biology.

The basic idea is that we take an organism – a bacterium, say – and re-engineer its genome so that it does something different. You might, for instance, make it ingest carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, process it and excrete crude oil.

That project is still under construction, but others, such as using synthesised DNA for data storage, have already been achieved. As evolution has proved, DNA is an extraordinarily stable medium that can preserve information for millions of years. In 2012, the Harvard geneticist George Church proved its potential by taking a book he had written, encoding it in a synthesised strand of DNA, and then making DNA sequencing machines read it back to him.

When we first started achieving such things it was costly and time-consuming and demanded extraordinary resources, such as those available to the millionaire biologist Craig Venter. Venter’s team spent most of the past two decades and tens of millions of dollars creating the first artificial organism, nicknamed “Synthia”. Using computer programs and robots that process the necessary chemicals, the team rebuilt the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides from scratch. They also inserted a few watermarks and puzzles into the DNA sequence, partly as an identifying measure for safety’s sake, but mostly as a publicity stunt.

What they didn’t do was redesign the genome to do anything interesting. When the synthetic genome was inserted into an eviscerated bacterial cell, the new organism behaved exactly the same as its natural counterpart. Nevertheless, that Synthia, as Venter put it at the press conference to announce the research in 2010, was “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer” made it a standout achievement.

Today, however, we have entered another era in synthetic biology and Venter faces stiff competition. The Steve Jobs to Venter’s Bill Gates is Jef Boeke, who researches yeast genetics at New York University.

Boeke wanted to redesign the yeast genome so that he could strip out various parts to see what they did. Because it took a private company a year to complete just a small part of the task, at a cost of $50,000, he realised he should go open-source. By teaching an undergraduate course on how to build a genome and teaming up with institutions all over the world, he has assembled a skilled workforce that, tinkering together, has made a synthetic chromosome for baker’s yeast.

The chromosome works just as well as the natural one and is the first step towards an entirely synthetic yeast. What’s more, the synthetic chromosome already does unusual things. The team can watch it shuffle its genes around, or even delete some. That way, they can identify how evolution over-engineered the organism, and also what variations might make it more useful or interesting.

One of the research partners was Imperial College London, where an international meeting on the future of synthetic biology took place this month. The science minister David Willetts gave the main speech, thanking evolution for its contributions and presenting it with a gold watch.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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The best Instagram accounts to follow if you love space

As new space findings hit the news on an almost daily basis, the app offers an alternative window onto the universe.

If there’s anything that can break us away from the humdrum monotony of modern life, it’s space. It renders us awe-struck and captures our imagination with its vastness and surreal imagery, and as astronomy-related research expands, cosmic mysteries continue to unfold.

Whether it’s the occurrence of rare celestial events, the discovery of exoplanets that could potentially harbour life, or the confirmation of gravitational waves that ripple through the space-time continuum, it seems that there are new findings propelled onto our newsfeeds daily.  

Yet one of the best ways of keeping up to date with the latest research and projects at the frontier of space is on Instagram, the social media platform. Here are some of the accounts you should be following to get the greatest insight into space:

1. SpaceX (@spacex)

The aerospace company SpaceX designs spacecrafts and reusable rockets in the hope that their technology can one day make human life multi-planetary. Spearheaded be CEO Elon Musk, the company has the lofty ambition of one day colonising Mars. Below is a spectacular image of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket in its first-stage entry:


Photographer unexpectedly captures Falcon 9 second stage burn and first stage entry @slowcountrylife

A photo posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on


2. International Space Station (@iss)

The International Space Station, a habitable satellite whirling around the Earth approximately 16 times per day in low orbit, has an Instagram feed displaying the equipment on board as well as stunning pictures of the Earth from a distance. Here’s a picture from the station 250 miles above earth depicting the Earth as an azure blue marble:


The blue of the #bahamas can't be mistaken, even from 250 miles above. #YearInSpace #nasa #space #spacestation : @stationcdrkelly

A photo posted by International Space Station (@iss) on


3. Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake)

Currently aboard the International Space Station is Tim Peake, a British astronaut. As he has carried out his work on Expedition 46/47 on the station, he has shared a range of photos of Earth that he has shot with his Nikon D4 from the vantage point of space, from reefs off the coast of Mozambique to the glint of sun highlighting Vancouver Island. Here we have a clear image of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”:


3/3: The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

A photo posted by Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) on


4. Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly)

Scott Kelly is an engineer and a retired American astronaut who recently spent a year commanding the International Space Station, travelling 143,846,525 miles around our globe in the process. A quick scroll through his profile will demonstrate just how profound his experience must have been at the shores of space, and includes a host of images of the aurora borealis:


#GoodMorning #aurora and the Pacific Northwest! #YearInSpace #northernlights #beautiful #morning #space #spacestation #iss

A photo posted by Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly) on


5. Nasa Goddard (@nasagoddard)

Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre was the company’s very first flight centre. It’s the largest of its kind, and the official Instagram account for the centre serves as a highlight reel for everything NASA is working on. There are behind-the-scenes looks at the James Webb Space Telescope under construction, computer-simulated images of supermassive black holes, and clear views of distant galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope:


Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the big bang and are fainter than any other galaxy yet uncovered by Hubble. The team has determined for the first time with some confidence that these small galaxies were vital to creating the universe that we see today. An international team of astronomers, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has discovered over 250 tiny galaxies that existed only 600-900 million years after the big bang— one of the largest samples of dwarf galaxies yet to be discovered at these epochs. The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young. Although impressive, the number of galaxies found at this early epoch is not the team’s only remarkable breakthrough, as Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, points out. “The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations.” By looking at the light coming from the galaxies the team discovered that the accumulated light emitted by these galaxies could have played a major role in one of the most mysterious periods of the universe’s early history — the epoch of reionization. Reionization started when the thick fog of hydrogen gas that cloaked the early universe began to clear. Ultraviolet light was now able to travel over larger distances without being blocked and thus the universe became transparent to ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/ESA #nasagoddard #Hubble #HST #space #galaxy

A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on


6. Roscosmos (@roscosmosofficial)

Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency at the heart of all space endeavours in Russia. The agency is involved in the maintenance and progression of the International Space Station, and is working on its own research projects such as a planned robotic mission to one of Mars’s moons.  Here’s the launch of a rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome which is under construction:


7. Nasa (@nasa)

Over the years, Nasa has firmly committed to pushing the boundaries of space exploration, and, as its 12.3m Instagram acolytes would agree, it has been successful. As part of the Frontier Fields campaign investigating galaxy clusters, a recent deep field image from the Hubble revealed bounds of galaxies in the constellation of Leo:


Nearly as deep as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, this incredible image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals thousands of colorful galaxies in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). This vibrant view of the early universe was captured as part of the Frontier Fields campaign, which aims to investigate galaxy clusters in more detail than ever before, and to explore some of the most distant galaxies in the universe. Galaxy clusters are massive. They can have a tremendous impact on their surroundings, with their immense gravity warping and amplifying the light from more distant objects. This phenomenon, known as gravitational lensing, can help astronomers to see galaxies that would otherwise be too faint, aiding our hunt for residents of the primordial universe. Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt #nasa #hubble #astronomy #science #space #galaxy #galaxies

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on