Research Article

Engineering the ribosomal DNA in a megabase synthetic chromosome

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Science  10 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6329, eaaf3981
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf3981

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Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

It has long been an interesting question whether a living cell can be constructed from scratch in the lab, a goal that may not be realized anytime soon. Nonetheless, with advances in DNA synthesis technology, the complete genetic material of an organism can now be synthesized chemically. Hitherto, genomes of several organisms including viruses, phages, and bacteria have been designed and constructed. These synthetic genomes are able to direct all normal biological functions, capable of self-replication and production of offspring. Several years ago, a group of scientists worldwide formed an international consortium to reconstruct the genome of budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

RATIONALE

The synthetic yeast genome, designated Sc2.0, was designed according to a set of arbitrary rules, including the elimination of transposable elements and incorporation of specific DNA elements to facilitate further genome manipulation. Among the 16 S. cerevisiae chromosomes, chromosome XII is unique as one of the longest yeast chromosomes (~1 million base pairs) and additionally encodes the highly repetitive ribosomal DNA locus, which forms the well-organized nucleolus. We report on the design, construction, and characterization of chromosome XII, the physically largest chromosome in S. cerevisiae.

RESULTS

A 976,067–base pair linear chromosome, synXII, was designed based on the native chromosome XII sequence of S. cerevisiae, and chemically synthesized. SynXII was assembled using a two-step method involving, successive megachunk integration to produce six semisynthetic strains, followed by meiotic recombination–mediated assembly, yielding a full-length functional chromosome in S. cerevisiae. Minor growth defect “bugs” detected in synXII were caused by deletion of tRNA genes and were corrected by introducing an ectopic copy of a single tRNA gene. The ribosomal gene cluster (rDNA) on synXII was left intact during the assembly process and subsequently replaced by a modified rDNA unit. The same synthetic rDNA unit was also used to regenerate rDNA at three distinct chromosomal locations. The rDNA signature sequences of the internal transcribed spacer (ITS), often used to determine species identity by standard DNA barcoding procedures, were swapped to generate a Saccharomyces synXII strain that would be identified as S. bayanus. Remarkably, these substantial DNA changes had no detectable phenotypic consequences under various laboratory conditions.

CONCLUSION

The rDNA locus of synXII is highly plastic; not only can it be moved to other chromosomal loci, it can also be altered in its ITS region to masquerade as a distinct species as defined by DNA barcoding, used widely in taxonomy. The ability to perform “species morphing” reported here presumably reflects the degree of evolutionary flexibility by which these ITS regions change. However, this barcoding region is clearly not infinitely flexible, as only relatively modest intragenus base changes were tolerated. More severe intergenus differences in ITS sequence did not result in functional rDNAs, probably because of defects in rRNA processing. The ability to design, build, and debug a megabase-sized chromosome, together with the flexibility in rDNA locus position, speaks to the remarkable overall flexibility of the yeast genome.

Hierarchical assembly and subsequent restructuring of synXII.

SynXII was assembled in two steps: First, six semisynthetic synXII strains were built in which segments of native XII DNA were replaced with the corresponding designer sequences. Next, the semisynthetic strains were combined withmultiple rounds ofmating/sporulation, eventually generating a single strain encoding fulllength synXII.The rDNA repeats were removed, modified, and subsequently regenerated at distinct chromosomal locations for species morphing and genome restructuring.

Abstract

We designed and synthesized a 976,067–base pair linear chromosome, synXII, based on native chromosome XII in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. SynXII was assembled using a two-step method, specified by successive megachunk integration and meiotic recombination-mediated assembly, producing a functional chromosome in S. cerevisiae. Minor growth defect “bugs” detected in synXII, caused by deletion of tRNA genes, were rescued by introducing an ectopic copy of a single tRNA gene. The ribosomal gene cluster (rDNA) on synXII was left intact during the assembly process and subsequently replaced by a modified rDNA unit used to regenerate rDNA at three distinct chromosomal locations. The signature sequences within rDNA, which can be used to determine species identity, were swapped to generate a Saccharomyces synXII strain that would be identified as Saccharomyces bayanus by standard DNA barcoding procedures.

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