The cell is one of the smallest individual components of all living things. Recently, scientists were able to create a simple synthetic cell that grows and divides normally. Researchers on the project say the new findings shed light on mechanisms controlling the most fundamental processes of life.
About five years ago, scientists created a single-celled synthetic organism with only 473 genes that was the simplest living cell ever known. The bacteria-like organism behaved strangely when growing and dividing, resulting in cells with wildly different shapes and sizes. Scientists have now identified seven genes to be added to help control the cell’s unruly nature, causing it to divide into uniform orbs.
The new breakthrough is a collaboration between the J.Craig Venter Institute, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and MIT. Identifying the genes was an important step in engineering synthetic cells able to perform beneficial activities like producing drugs, foods, and fuels. These synthetic cells could also detect disease and make drugs while living inside the human body. Researchers also believe this type of simple cell could function as a tiny computer.
Researchers wanted to understand the fundamental design rules of life and believe the cell could help discover and understand those rules. Researchers constructed the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010, but that cell wasn’t built from scratch. In that research, scientists started with cells from a simple type of bacteria called mycoplasma. They destroyed the DNA in the cells and replaced it with DNA designed on a computer and synthesized in the laboratory, creating the first organism in the history of life on Earth to have an entirely synthetic genome.
Since that success, scientists have been working to strip the organism down to its minimum genetic components. The result was a super-simple cell created five years ago called JCVI-syn3.0 that was too minimalist and didn’t divide correctly. The new cell has 19 additional genes added back in, including seven needed for normal cell division creating the new variant dubbed JCVI-syn3A. The new version has less than 500 genes. A human cell, by comparison, has around 30,000 genes. The team currently has a goal of knowing every gene’s function, allowing them to develop a complete model of how a cell works.