This Newly Made ‘Synthetic Life’ Is the Simplest Living Organism Ever

The race to harness synthetic life is on.

3. 24. 16 by Todd Jaquith
HDImage
Image by HDImage

The Littlest Genome

In new research published today in the journal Science, famed genomicists J. Craig Venter and Clyde Hutchison show how they have managed to assemble a functional living organism with only the barest genomic complement—just 473 genes, enough to live but nothing more.

The achievement is a milestone in genomics research and biological engineering, and may open up new avenues in the intelligent manipulation of living things. In 2010, the same team proved that it was possible to create synthetic life; now, by using such an exiguous genome, researchers can better understand exactly what each gene does.

Even so, the functions of about 1/3 of the genes of the new organism—christened “JCVI-syn3.0” by its creators—remain unaccounted for.

“There were 149 genes of unknown function,” Venter observes. “We expected maybe 5 or 10 percent. I don’t think anyone would have imagined getting down to a minimal cell with 32 percent.”

Advertisement

Which suggests that, despite all our remarkable prowess in creating synthetic life, there’s still a great deal left to learn.

New Possibilities

The team created the organism by using a Mycoplasma bacterium, which already possesses the smallest known genome of any self-replicating cell. They created the “no-frills” genome through a simple, but laborious, trial-and-error process, determining which genes were essential to life by disrupting their functions and separating the crucial from the non-crucial genes.

The new genome is not by any means the smallest possible—it’s the minimum complement possible for its type of organism, but smaller genomes are certainly conceivable for other species of living things, for example, yeasts and potential future synthetic organisms.

And the research has applications beyond merely deciphering life’s genetic encyclopedia. It conduces to a major aim of Venter’s research institute—translating the information locked within nucleic acids into digital code, so that it can be transmitted anywhere in the world and then “downloaded” via a kind of 3D printer into a synthetic organism.

Advertisement

Which may not sound all that remarkable, but it could mean tailor-made organisms for agriculture, medicine, and even biocomputing. Not to mention the far-out prospect of faxing back to Earth the digitized genomes of any organisms potentially discovered on Mars or Titan, or anywhere in the solar system, and reassembling the alien critters in the lab.

But that’s for the future. For the time being, scientists will stick with baby steps—but this is certainly a major one.

Learn more about genetic sequencing and the first synthetic bacterial cell in the video below.


As a Futurism reader, we invite you join the Singularity Global Community, our parent company’s forum to discuss futuristic science & technology with like-minded people from all over the world. It’s free to join, sign up now!

Advertisement

Share This Article

Keep up.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter to keep in touch with the subjects shaping our future.
I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its User Agreement and Privacy Policy

Advertisement

Copyright ©, Singularity Education Group All Rights Reserved. See our User Agreement, Privacy Policy and Cookie Statement. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with prior written permission of Futurism. Fonts by Typekit and Monotype.