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Minimalist cells: Scientists strip genome down to essentials

"This paper signifies a major step toward our ability to design and build synthetic organisms," said researcher Daniel G. Gibson.

By
Brooks Hays
A close-up image reveals newly synthesized bacterial cells. The cells, which belong to a human-engineered species called JCVI-syn.30, boast the shortest genome in the world. Photo by JCVI
A close-up image reveals newly synthesized bacterial cells. The cells, which belong to a human-engineered species called JCVI-syn.30, boast the shortest genome in the world. Photo by JCVI

ROCKVILLE, Md., March 24 (UPI) -- Researchers have created a new species of bacteria using the fewest number of genes possible. It turns out the genetic ingredient list for life is longer than scientists thought.

"Our attempt to design and create a new species, while ultimately successful, revealed that 32 percent of the genes essential for life in this cell are of unknown function, and showed that many are highly conserved in numerous species," John Craig Venter, a biotechnologist and founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, said in a news release.

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"All the bioinformatics studies over the past 20 years have underestimated the number of essential genes by focusing only on the known world," Venter said. "This is an important observation that we are carrying forward into the study of the human genome."

Venter is well known as the first scientist to sequence the human genome, but was also the first to transfect a cell with a synthetic genome.

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For the latest feat, Venter and his colleagues set out to build a healthy, replicating bacterial cell using the smallest, simplest possible genome. With just 473 genes, their invention -- described in the journal Science -- is the smallest self-sufficient genetic sequence in the world.

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Though the end result of their research -- the synthetic bacteria named JCVI-syn.30 -- may eventually have real-world applications, Venter said the primary goal from day one has been biological knowledge.

"This paper signifies a major step toward our ability to design and build synthetic organisms from the bottom up with predictable outcomes," JCVI researcher Daniel G. Gibson said. "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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