Scientists at Harvard University have developed synthetic ribosomes that readily create a long complex protein, firefly luciferase. The ability to create synthetic ribosomes—critical cellular protein-making machinery—is a major advance in synthetic biology, with potential industrial applications.
Speaking at a Harvard Alumni Association and Origins of Life Initiative event on 7 March, George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, described the advance for the first time publicly. Dr. Church is also Director of NIH-CEGS and DOE-GTL Genomics Centers, and a co-founder of LS9, a company developing renewable hydrocarbon fuels (earlier post).
|“We have not made artificial life, and that is not our primary goal, but this is a huge milestone in that direction.”|
Using the bacteria E. coli, Church and Research Fellow Michael Jewett extracted the bacteria’s natural ribosomes, broke them down into their constituent parts, removed the key ribosomal RNA and then synthesized the ribosomal RNA anew from molecules.
The advance breaks a 40-year period with little progress in artificial ribosome creation, Church said. The last significant work in this area was done in 1968, when researchers assembled an artificial ribosome, but in an unusual chemical environment rather than an environment in which protein synthesis normally occurs, as Church and Jewett did.
Church said that the work’s industrial applications were its driving force. Industry today manufactures proteins on a large scale using natural ribosomes, which evolved over millions of years for natural, not industrial, reasons. Church said that being able to create a ribosome means also being able to tweak it so it better fits industrial needs. One possible use would be to create mirror-image proteins that would be less susceptible to breakdown by enzymes, making them longer-lived.
The ultimate goal is to create an artificial genome of 151 genes that they believe are the minimum to create a functioning, self-replicating cell.