Scientists have created a simple synthetic cell, JCVI-syn3A, that divides gently. The research is published by the journal Cell.
Five years ago, scientists created a single-celled synthetic organism. With only 473 genes, it became the simplest living cell ever known. However, this bacterium-like organism behaved strangely during growth and division, producing cells of completely different shapes and sizes.
Finally, scientists have identified seven genes that can be added to tame the rebellious nature of cells, forcing them to neatly divide into homogeneous spheres. Experts from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Bits and Atoms Center worked on the study.
Identifying these genes is an important step towards making synthetic cells. They, in turn, can act as small factories for the production of medicines, food and fuel. In addition, he is able to diagnose disease and create medicines to treat it while living inside the body. In essence, they function like tiny computers.
The problem is that in order to design and build a cell that does exactly what it needs to do, it’s important to have a list of the main parts of it and how they fit together.
JCVI scientists designed the first cell with a synthetic genome in 2010. They didn’t build it entirely from scratch. Instead, the researchers started with cells of a very simple type of bacteria called mycoplasmas. They destroyed their DNA and replaced it with an artificial one, designed on a computer and synthesized in a laboratory. It was the first organism in the history of life on Earth to have a fully synthetic genome – JCVI-syn1.0.
Since then, scientists have been working to reduce this organism to a minimum of genetic components. The super-simple cell they created five years ago, dubbed JCVI-syn3.0, was even too minimalistic.
The researchers have now added 19 genes to this cell, seven of which are necessary for normal cell division. This is how a new variant appeared – JCVI-syn3A. This variant has less than 500 genes. For comparison, coli bacteria, which live in the intestine, have about 4,000 genes. There are about 30,000 of them in a human cell.
The identification of these seven additional genes took years of painstaking efforts by the JCVI synthetic biology group led by co-author John Glass. JCVI co-author and scientist Ligi Sun has engineered dozens of variant strains by systematically adding and removing genes. She and other researchers then observed how these genetic changes affect cell growth and division.