The Frankenfactor – Synthetic Biologists Engineer Yeast Cells That Talk To One Another

A team of University of Washington researchers has engineered yeast cells (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that can “talk” to one another.

In a paper titled “Cell-cell communication in yeast using auxin biosynthesis and auxin responsive CRISPR transcription factors,” published on ACS Synthetic Biology, the researchers describe a novel cell-to-cell communication system that enables one yeast cell to regulate the expression of genes and influence the behavior of an entirely separate yeast cell, using a versatile plant hormone called auxin. A preprint is available online on bioRxiv.

If We Can Figure Out the Programming Language of Life, We Can Do Anything That Life Does

Yeast CellsThe researchers found ways to make a “sender” yeast cell produce auxin, a versatile hormone that controls everything from where a plant’s roots develop to how effectively they fight off pathogens. Then, they inserted a new transcription factor with tunable sensitivity to auxin in “receiver” yeast cells and engineered it to activate a jellyfish gene that turned the cell green. The transcription factor used – a protein that controls whether a specific gene inside a cell’s DNA is expressed or not – was assembled from so many different genetic parts that the scientists called it “Frankenfactor.” Upon reception of the auxin released by sender cells, the Frankenfactor switched off the gene that turned the receiver cells green, achieving cell-to-cell communication at a distance.

Besides the envisaged applications to yeast, the demonstration of cell-to-cell communications has wider implications for synthetic biology. It is, in fact, a basic step toward understanding the communication and cooperative processes that permit different types of cells to work together, which could lead to understanding how to fight diseases and engineer artificial organs.

“Until you can actually build a multicellular organism that starts from a single cell, you don’t really understand it,” said Eric Klavins, a UW associate professor of electrical engineering and of bioengineering. “And until we can do that, it’s going to be hard to do things like regrow a kidney for someone who needs it.”

But synthetic biologists have even loftier ambitions. By understanding in detail how life works, they hope to be one day able to tweak biological organisms much beyond the limits of today’s knowledge, and eventually create entirely new forms of life.

“If you ask someone in computer science what they can do with a programming language, they’ll laugh and say they can do anything with it,” Klavins said.

If we can figure out the programming language of life, we can do anything that life does – except in a more controllable, reliable way.

Images from University of Washington and Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.