An astonishing new discovery has scientists playing God.
Scientists have created a tiny artificial bacterial genome using the smallest number of genes possible, a breakthrough for creating synthetic organisms that can perform specific, useful tasks like gobbling up spilled oil, for example.
The bacterium cane metabolize nutrients and self-replicate itself, and is a major step forward to building custom artificial life, according to a J. Craig Venter Institute statement.
This artificial bacteriam possesses just 473 genes. Most natural bacteria have thousands.
The scientists began by examining bacteria called Mycoplasma, which ahve the smallest organisms in nature. These bacteria live in humans and other mammals. Researchers at the institute started hypoethesizing in the 1990s that an artificial organisms would need 256 genes to be viable.
They soon found the venture to be a good bit more complicated than that, but eventually they were able to construct a synthetic genome that could be inserted into a Mycoplasma bacteria after the old genome was removed, growing and living like a normal cell.
This discovery could pave the way to engineering such cells to do important jobs on a wide scale, such as consuming oil that has been spilled like in the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. It could also help scientists learn more about how cells evolve.
“Our attempt to design and create a new species, while ultimately successful, revealed that 32% of the genes essential for life in this cell are of unknown function, and showed that many are highly conserved in numerous species. All the bioinformatics studies over the past 20 years have underestimated the number of essential genes by focusing only on the known world. This is an important observation that we are carrying forward into the study of the human genome,” Dr. J. Craig Venter, the founder of JCVI, said in the statement.
Added Dr. Daniel Gibson, vice president of JCVI: “This paper signifies a major step toward our ability to design and build synthetic organisms from the bottom up with predictable outcomes. The tools and knowledge gained from this work will be essential to producing next generation production platforms for a wide range of disciplines.”
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