Scientists on Thursday announced the creation of a synthetic organism stripped down to the bare essentials with the fewest genes needed to survive and multiply, a feat at the microscopic level that may provide big insights on the very nature of life.
Genome investigation inventor J. Craig Venter called the bacterial cell his research team planned and constructed the "most simple of all organisms." While the human genome possesses more than 20,000 genes, the new organism gets by with only 473. "This study is definitely trying to understand a minimal basis of life," said Venter. But the researchers said that straight with such a simple organism, that thoughtful remained elusive. They well-known that even though their creature has so few genes, they were still uncertain about the function of nearly a third of them, even after more than five years of work.
The researchers foretold their work would harvest practical applications in developing new medicines, biochemicals, biofuels and in agriculture. "Our long-term dream has been to design and shape synthetic organisms on demand where you can add in specific functions and predict what the result is going to be," said Daniel Gibson, vice president for DNA technologies at Synthetic Genomics Inc, the company handling commercial applications from the research.
"I think it's the start of a new era," Venter added.
Venter helped map the human genome in 2001 and created the first synthetic cell in 2010 with the same team that conducted the new research. That 2010 attainment, making a bacterial organism with a artificial genome, demonstrated that genomes can be designed on a computer, made in a laboratory and transplanted into a cell to form a new, self-replicating organism.
Having created that synthetic cell, the researchers set out to engineer a bacterium by removing unessential genes. The goal was to use the fewest genes essential for the organism to live and reproduce.