Drinkers could soon enjoy cheaper beer thanks to a project in which scientists aim to make synthetic yeast for the first time.
By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
12:01AM BST 11 Jul 2013
British researchers are helping to create “designer” genomes that can be inserted into yeast cells to create new strains of these organisms.
They hope these man-made forms of life could eventually be used by the brewing industry to make cheaper – and stronger – beer.
The international project adds to work to create the first ever synthetic life form, by building a bacterium genome from scratch.
Researchers, who have been awarded £1 million of government funding for the project, will first attempt to recreate a slimmed down version of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used in the brewing industry to ferment beer.
It will be the first time a genome has been built from scratch for a eukaryotic organism, the branch of the evolutionary tree that includes plants and animals.
The scientists then aim to redesign parts of the yeast genome so that it can perform functions that are not possible naturally.
Professor Paul Freemont, from the centre for synthetic biology and innovation at Imperial College London who is helping to lead the British part of the project, said they could help make yeast more efficient so they required less energy and could tolerate more alcohol before dying, allowing beer to be made stronger.
He said: “The brewing industry is very interested in this project for any new opportunities it may present as they use yeast to manufacture beer.
“One of the aims of the project is to develop this yeast strain as a vehicle that you can put in new chemical pathways and directly manipulate it in a way that is not possible at the moment.
“Clearly there are strains of yeast that are highly resistant to alcohol, but they all die off as the alcohol gets higher, so making more alcohol resistant strains will be very useful for that industry in terms of cost value.
“Strains that are metabolically more optimal and don’t require as much energy will also be useful.”
The synthetic yeast project, also known as Sc2.0, will draw together expertise from around the world.
Researchers working to develop synthetic organisms are this week gathering in London for a major conference on the topic.
David Willetts, the UKs science minister, is to announce plans to develop a new £10 million centre of innovation and knowledge to find new applications for these synthetic organisms.
Among the areas they hope to develop are finding new ways to make fuels, drugs and produce food.
Mr Willetts said: “Synthetic biology has huge potential for our economy and society in so many areas from life sciences to agriculture.”
Synthetic biology, however, has created criticism from those who fear that scientists are “playing God” by attempting to create entirely new forms of life.
There are also fears that synthetic life forms could escape into the wild and spread uncontrollably.
However, the scientists insist that they are able to design in fail-safes that will prevent anything from surviving in the wild and claim that strict guidelines govern their work.