Scientists Create First Synthetic Ribosome

Harvard researchers have successfully constructed an essential cellular component responsible for synthesizing proteins—a discovery that marks a major stride towards creating artificial life, according to the lead investigator behind the project.

The first man-made ribosome was announced to an assembly of Harvard alumni Saturday afternoon in a symposium titled “The Future of Life,” by George M. Church, the lead investigator of the project and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.

“[The ribosome is] the catalytic core of the cell,” said Michael C. Jewett, a research fellow who worked with Church. “The advantage of building them [in a lab] is that you can manipulate the system directly. It’s like opening the hood of a car and having direct access to the machination.”

Although their work is “a milestone...towards artificial life,” according to Jewett, both he and Church emphasized that they have not yet created any synthetic life, nor is that their main goal.

Instead, the research team’s aim is to “make useful products,” said Church.

The research behind the ribosome, funded by the National Institute of Health, could give scientists “unprecedented power to evolve ribosomes to produce unique proteins for compelling applications,” Jewett said. Crucial vaccines and pharmaceuticals could evolve from the discovery.

“The idea of being able to make new polymers, maybe one day making a mirror-image cell, which is resistant to almost all viruses and enzymes, would be of industrial and philosophical significance,” Church said.

Church, whose announcement Saturday came at an event sponsored by the Harvard Origin of Life Initiative, also said that studying ribosomes—one of the few cell components common to almost all life—can be relevant to our understanding of the first life on Earth.

“Ribosomes...allow us to connect the dots between the origins of life and the modern organism,” Church said. “Synthetic ribosomes will hopefully allow us to do those things better, or do things that haven’t been able to do before."

The next step, researchers said, is to create a ribosome that will be completely synthetic, without the use of bacterial RNA and other protein additives.

Labs have created functional models of ribosomes in the past, Jewett said, but never in a way that so closely mimicked life itself.

“We’ve shown for the first time that we can actually carry out ribosomal synthesis, assembly, and protein synthesis in one compartment” said Jewett.

Jack W. Szostak, a genetics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor who has been investigating the origins of life, acknowledged yesterday the significance of Church’s discovery.

“It’s always been a very difficult thing to do,” Szostak said. “It opens up more interesting experiences where you make something useful. It’s a step in a long pathway [to creating artificial life].”

—Staff writer Helen X. Yang can be reached at hxyang@fas.harvard.edu.