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20 years after such a project was conceived, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have created a fast-growing bacterial cell with a nearly-minimal number of genes necessary for survival – just 473 in total. [3] The genome of this new strain, dubbed Syn3.0, contains approximately half of the genes of Syn1.0, a slightly less minimal cell produced by the same group six years ago. [1][2] This time the group thinks they’re nearly at the limit, “You cannot live without all but one or two of the genes in this genome,” says Venter. [3]

Syn1.0 was the first organism with an entirely synthetic genome, meaning the DNA was assembled using a computer file as a blueprint, not transplanted from another organism. [2][4] Syn3.0 is also synthetic, and with its even smaller genome it is tailor-made for gene-function identification studies [1]. Biologists are still in the dark about what many genes do, including over 30% of the genes in Syn3.0, all of which were essential to its survival. [3] The hope is that fewer genes will simplify the genetic picture to the point where scientists can identify gene functions, perhaps even by adding them one by one to a bare-bones cell such as Syn3.0. [3][4]

Growing ‘minimal cells’ might also have big effects in bioengineering and biochemical production. Without unnecessary genes, including those that have evolved for survival outside of a cushy lab environment, cells can spend more of their energy on a specific task – producing medicinal compounds or even fuel, just to name two. [4][3]

 

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Holly Elmore (PhD Candidate, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard) for her thoughtful comments on the potential impacts of this ‘minimal cell.’

Managing Correspondent: Sam Dillavou

 

[1] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6280/aad6253

[2] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/329/5987/52

[3] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/03/24/471307905/scientists-build-live-no-frills-cell-that-could-have-a-big-future

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3026460/

Photo by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Imaging and Microscopy Research at the University of California at San Diego (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/how-many-genes-for-life/)

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