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Synthetic genomics is a field of biochemistry focusing on the creation of the genome — the complete assemblage of an organism’s genetic, or hereditary, information necessary for that organism to maintain life. The genome of an organism is made up of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules that form a code. Portions of this code, called genes, control the creation and interactions of proteins in the organism’s cells, allowing the organism to function. In synthetic genomics, scientists manipulate and recreate genomes for research purposes or for practical applications in medicine and biofuel manufacturing.
DNA is made up of repeating structural units called nucleotides, which form base pairs and create the patterns that constitute the genetic code. Nucleotides and DNA sequences are manufactured artificially for a variety of biochemical applications, but synthetic genomics is a more involved process. In order to create a functional synthetic genome, the natural genome must be known in full and either replicated exactly or modified in such a way that no crucial functions are affected.
In 2010, a research team based at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland created the first synthetic bacterial genome. The bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, has a genome consisting of one million base pairs. The team was able to replicate the bacterium’s natural genome using synthetically produced nucleotides and introduce the synthetic genome into a different bacterium’s cell, replacing that bacterium’s DNA with the synthetic Mycoplasma mycoides DNA. With the new genome in place, the cell began functioning as a normal Mycoplasma mycoides cell, with all its functions intact.
Complications in synthesizing a genome can easily arise due to the complexity of the systems involved. For example, if one base pair is out of place or missing, the cell may not function at all. Similarly, the biochemical processes by which the cell reads and implements the information in the DNA, and the chemical interactions of the cell environment with the DNA, must be correct.
Synthetic genomics technology can be adapted to industrial and commercial applications, such as the production of biofuel. As of 2011, some companies are researching the possibility of creating synthetic algae that is more efficient than naturally-occurring algae at trapping and processing carbon dioxide into usable substances. Many researchers believe that engineering algae in this way may make the production of biofuel more cost-effective and commercially viable.
Other projects in synthetic genomics involve synthesizing only a portion of a genome to modify an organism for use in an industrial or scientific capacity. An example is the modification of plant genomes to make crops more resistant to drought or pests. In medicine, microbes can be genetically altered to act as remedies for certain illnesses or assist in gene therapy.