Scientists have created a simple synthetic cell that is able to grow and divide normally, shedding light on mechanisms controlling the basic processes of life.
With ongoing advancements in genetic engineering, the field of synthetic biology has created new capabilities to investigate and harness fundamental biological processes. Genome minimisation offers a straightforward approach to understand cell systems and fundamental physiological processes from interactions between essential genes.
In 2010, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) built the first cell with a synthetic genome, beginning with the bacteria Mycoplasma. JCVI-syn1.0 was the first organism ever to have an entirely synthetic genome. Then in 2016, they subsequently reduced the genome complexity in order to deliver a nearly minimal living bacterium (JCVI-syn3.0). This single-celled synthetic organism contained 473 genes and was the simplest living cell ever known. However, this bacteria-like organism behaved unusually when it grew and divided, producing cells with different shapes and sizes.
In this study, published in Cell, researchers set out to investigate the striking morphological variation in JCVI-syn3.0 cells.
With the addition of 19 genes the team generated a variant – JCVI-syn3A – which presented with similar morphological features to that of JCVI-syn1.0. The researchers found that seven of the 19 genes were required to restore a phenotype similar to that of JCVI-syn1.0. More specifically, when researchers added these genes, they were able to tame the cells’ wild behaviour. This enabled the cells to divide into uniform orbs. Of the seven genes, scientists only currently know the role of two of them. The team hope to know the function of every gene so they can develop a complete model of how a cell works.
The identification of these genes is an important step in synthetically engineering cells for useful applications such as drug production and data storage. In addition, these cells can help us to further discover and understand the fundamental rules of life.
Image credit: By Yuuji – canva.com