Synthetic Yeast, Fake Science News, and the Tully Monster

7:31 minutes

Yeast under a microscope. Credit: Shutterstock

More than 500 researchers working around the world have advanced the quest to create a synthetic yeast genome. Writing in Science this week, the team say they’ve completed five new synthetic chromosomes (after completing the first one in 2014), and are on track to make the remaining 10 by the end of the year. Their efforts would open the door to synthetic, designer yeast that could create new kinds of chemicals.

Wired science reporter Nick Stockton shares that story and other short subjects in science.

[We’re at least a little like yeast.]

Segment Guests

Nick Stockton

Nick Stockton is a science reporter at Wired, based in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: This is Science Friday. I’m Manoush Zomorodi. Ira Flatow is away.

Later in the hour, we’ll discuss how Republican lawmakers are unraveling key environmental regulations put in place by the Obama administration and what President Trump is doing to weaken the EPA.

But first, researchers working on creating the first artificial yeast genome have announced a milestone. They’re now a third of the way there, having synthesized six of the 16 chromosomes. And they have a design ready for the rest. So what’s the big deal? Here to explain that, plus other short subjects in science, is Nick Stockton, reporter for WIRED based in San Francisco, California. Welcome back to Science Friday, Nick.

NICK STOCKTON: Hi, Manoush. Thank you.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Oh, it’s good to hear your voice. Now Nick, why would anyone want to synthesize yeast in the first place?

NICK STOCKTON: Well, first of all, it’s cool. Yeast, they’re a eukaryote, which means they’re a complex former life, which includes everything from trees, mice, all the way up to humans. These are things with a distinct nucleus and also organelles inside the cell.

But second, this has a very practical application. This strain of yeast is capable of gassing out various molecules that are used in industry and food science. These include things like biofuels, medicines, industrial chemicals, and stuff like that. So that’s why this one was engineered because scientists wanted better control of what kind of molecules they could get these yeast to gas out.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: And so how close are we now to a fully synthetic yeast?

NICK STOCKTON: So they have designed 17 chromosomes, which is one more than wild yeasts have. They added a chromosome, which I can talk about in a second. But they have completed six of them. And that means that they have actually gotten the strands of molecule, turned them into strands of DNA, and then injected them into the yeast cells. And they have them holding off in pieces of yeast or bacteria. And they put those in coolers until they’re ready to [? Foye ?] synthesize the entire yeast.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Now, when you say “they,” who are these yeast makers?

NICK STOCKTON: It is a bunch of theys. It is 500 scientists working in 10 labs across four continents.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So really like a international synthetic yeast conglomeration, if you were.

NICK STOCKTON: Yeah, yeah. And as you can imagine, this is a huge undertaking. And so what they have is they have data scientists working with them that created this workflow software so nobody is stepping on anybody else’s toes. And they’re able to attack problems in a concerted effort.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, so can I just ask though? With synthetic yeast, does it have implications for more complicated kinds of life, like us?

NICK STOCKTON: It could, yeah, eventually. You would have to go through a very complicated ethical review before you got to synthesizing human DNA. But yeah, potentially, if they can get this one working. I mean, yeast, it’s going to be complicated, but it’s a little easier because yeast have this ability to– they can translate their DNA in a certain way that’s not possible with other forms of eukaryotes. They have like a special mutant power that makes it a little easier to work on.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Fascinating. OK, so the next thing we want to talk about is the Tully monster. I have to make a confession that regular Science Friday listeners might find shocking. I had never heard of the Tully monster. What is it?

NICK STOCKTON: I don’t know if a lot of you will have heard of it.


NICK STOCKTON: It’s kind of an obsession of mine. I’m obsessed with them because I like weird little creatures. And unfortunately, this one is no longer with us. It’s 300 million years old, these fossils. But imagine a squid body. And it has no tentacles. And where the eyes would be, you put big eye stalks sticking out to either side of them, big googly eyes out there. And below and in front of those eyes, where you’d think there’d be a mouth, there’s just a long articulated neck. And at the end of that is this beaky-looking mouth with teeth, eight of them, on the top and bottom. And this thing is about a foot long at the largest. And there is just this ongoing debate of which type of organism it is, whether it’s a vertebrate or a non-vertebrate. And that would have implications for which family of animals it falls into.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: And don’t keep us in suspense here. Is there an answer?

NICK STOCKTON: The latest science, which came out this week, says it’s not an invertebrate. And this is going against the study that came out last year that said it was a vertebrate. And this is a little more complicated than just seeing if these fossils have a spinal cord or not. What they’re looking for is other– these soft tissue things that would indicate that it actually has a spinal cord and a central nervous system.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: OK, so your next story has some insights into how “anti-science news,” quote unquote, spreads across the internet. Can you tell us about that?

NICK STOCKTON: Right, so this is a story that was reported out on Buzzfeed News by a reporter there named Stephanie Lee. And she looked into these ideologically bent news outlets that are building media fiefdoms on Facebook. And they’re really focused on science. And the science they do is a lot of times false, misleading, or just misframed.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So I mean, I’m fascinated by this because as the host of a tech podcast, Note to Self, we talk a lot about this idea of fake news and how it spreads. Does knowing where it comes from offer any advice for how to fight it then?

NICK STOCKTON: Potentially. I mean, this gets into, as I’m sure you’ve explored, these really sticky issues of trying to figure out how to get Facebook to deal with how news is used and how people spread information across their platform, which they have been hesitant to address.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah, this is a story that is not going to go away. And since we can’t put it to bed now, I want to ask you about your last story, which is Runglish. What is Runglish, Nick?

NICK STOCKTON: Runglish is a portmanteau, which is two words put together, meaning it’s from Russian and English. And so this is this hybrid language that is used on the International Space Station, which has a lot of astronauts and cosmonauts, which are Russian astronauts. And because they do training in both countries, and because they have to communicate with each other and make sure that if anything goes wrong, they can get to it right away, they both have to learn– all the Russian cosmonauts have to learn English, and all the American astronauts have to learn Russian. And as a result of this, because neither of them are going to be perfectly fluent in the other language, they’ve created this hybrid language called Runglish, which is in linguistic terms known as a creole, which is a kind of language that forms when two other languages interact. And it has distinct traces of both.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: I mean, is that different than when there’s a first generation living under one home and they sort of mishmosh, like Spanglish I’m thinking of.

NICK STOCKTON: Yeah, kind of. I would probably get in trouble by a linguist for going that far because there’s different levels of it. Like pidgins are some of these first generation ones. But Runglish is also spoken in places like Brighton Beach out in Brooklyn, where there’s a huge Russian population.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Of course. That sounds great. You’re making me hungry for pierogies.

All right, thanks again. Nick Stockton is a reporter for WIRED in San Francisco, California. Thank you, Nick.

NICK STOCKTON: You’re welcome, Manoush. And have a great weekend.


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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.