A research team was able to create an artificial microorganism that can properly function with the smallest set of genes seen so far in nature. The freshly-designed microbe named JCVI-syn3.0 operates on just 473 genes.
Of the 473 genes, 149 are a complete mystery to scientists although they seem essential to life. A research paper on the feat was published March 24 in the journal Science.
J. Craig Venter, leader of the team that achieved the new milestone and founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, noted that science does not have a clue on at least a third of genes that are essential to life.
Venter added that the artificial microorganism feeds, lives, and replicates just like a living organism. The researcher described the microbe as the “first designer organism in history.”
Scientists working in the synthetic biology field like Venter’s team are pioneers. The field could prove useful if researchers are able to create customized drugs and fossil fuel alternatives from synthetic organisms.
But JCVI-syn3.0 is the result of a two decades’ worth of research. Synthetic biology pioneers started their work on a designer organism 20 years ago. In the mid-90s, Venter’s team sequenced the entire genome of Haemophilus influenzae in a world’s first.
Next, the team sequenced the smallest then-known living organism Mycoplasma genitalium, which functions with just 525 genes. Claire Fraser, one of the researchers involved in that project noted that the exact set of genes in syn3.0 was reported initially for M. genitalium.
This means, that there may be a finite number of genes that are essential to design a viable, self-replicating organism. Since then, Venter and his fellow researchers have been looking for the minimal set of genes that allow an organism to live independently.
But the endeavor was challemging since even the tiniest life forms’ genomes contain genes that have multiple functions. So, the team had to work several years on removing unnecessary genes from some of the simplest genomes.
In 2010, the efforts finally paid off. The research team built a perfect synthetic replica of another type of Mycoplasma. Ever since, researchers have been removing the bacteria’ original genome and replaced it with one that was chemically synthesized.
This is how they managed to create the tiniest synthetic genome that allows an organism to self-replicate.
The team, however, has other ongoing projects such as designing synthetic omega 3 fatty acids and drugs that are more effective than what’s currently on the market. A project focused on producing biofuels has been put on hold as the plunging price of oil no longer make it commercially viable.
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