Building synthetic cells seemed easy, but it took us a decade to find the seven genes that allow them to grow and divide: luckily, we already have them
When five years ago, the Craig Venter Institute of La Jolla I think the simplest living cell ever seen We were getting into a really amazing terrine: we had been able to create a single-celled synthetic organism of just 473 genes capable of growing and reproducing.
With problems, yes. Syn3.0 was impressive, but somewhat orthopedic and behaved strangely producing cells of radically different shapes, sizes, and potentialities. We had created life, yes; but not much.
The great LEGO of life, (almost) literally
It was a long process. In early 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute created the first cell with a 100% synthetic genome. Basically destroyed the DNA of one mycoplasma and replaced it with another they had designed by computer (and synthesized in a laboratory). Thus began a race to rebuild life brick by brick.
It may seem like a curiosity of molecular biology, but as it says Elizabeth Strychalski, Director of the Cellular Engineering Group at NIST, is a first step to understanding the fundamental design rules of life. To do this, they focused on learning about the minimum components that allowed talking about a living being, but reality quickly made it clear that too minimalism was not always the best idea.
Of course, it only takes 19 more genes (seven of them specifically linked to normal cell division) for things to change. 19 genes that have cost half a decade and dozens of different strains. Half a decade in which scientists around the world have spent many hours taming the rebellious nature of cellular genetics and have managed to improve the replication mechanism allowing cells to divide much better. Thus, this cell has fewer than 500 genes. The E. coli has about 4,000 and a human cell, 30,000.
Let’s not fool ourselves, “Life is still a black box“As Strychalski explained. But with this synthetic cell we begin to see with good resolution what is going on inside.
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