A mysterious new synthetic cell is rocking the scientific world — here’s why

A mysterious new synthetic cell is rocking the scientific world — here’s why

Scientists have created a bacterium with the smallest number of genes ever.

As we reported recently, scientists have figured out how to create a tiny artificial bacterial genome using the smallest amount of genes possible, meaning it could be programmed to do tasks like gobble up oil from an oil spill. And there’s a very good reason why it’s making big waves in the scientific world.

The bacterium, created by the J. Craig Venter Institute, metabolizes nutrients and can self-replicate like a normal cell. It was made with just 473 genes, while natural bacteria tend to have thousands.

So what’s the big deal?

We all share a common ancestor, so scientists have long understood that all the different species share genes essential for our survival — what is basically our core operating system. Researchers wanted to create an organism that had only the most essential genes, allowing it to survive, but basically providing an engine that could be adapted for whatever scientists want.

This is important because it would allow scientists to basically design new life-forms from the ground up. They could create synthetic life-forms that could create biofuels, or manufacture medical drugs, for example.

“A major goal in synthetic biology is to have the capacity to predictably design and build DNA that produces a cell with new and improved biological functions that do not already exist in nature,” reads the institute’s statement on the discovery. “Significant advances have been made in DNA design at the gene and pathway level and in engineering bacteriophage genomes. But, even with all the advances that have been made in genomics and synthetic biology, there is still not a single self-replicating cell in which we understand the function of every one of its genes. Toward this goal, the JCVI/SGI team has been working to understand the gene content of a minimal cell—a cell that has only the machinery necessary for independent life.”

What’s next for scientists? The sky’s the limit, but this groundbreaking new discovery is sure to lead to some exciting innovations down the road.

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