Electron micrographs of clusters of JCVI-syn3.0 cells magnified about 15,000 times. Courtesy J. Craig Venter Institute

Researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute and biotech Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla announced the creation of the first synthetic bacterial cell with the minimum number of genes necessary for life.

Creating a minimal cell is considered crucial to understanding biology since the purpose of many genes is unknown. It also serves as the basis for future biotechnology developments.

The new cell, identified as JCVI-syn3.0, contains just 473 genes, giving it the smallest genome of any organism that can reproduce. By comparison, humans have around  20,000 genes.

Earlier cells created by the Venter team required many more genes. Still, it’s unclear to scientists why some of the genes are necessary.

“Our attempt to design and create a new species, while ultimately successful, revealed that 32 percent of the genes essential for life in this cell are of unknown function,” said Venter, the institute’s founder and CEO. “All the bioinformatics studies over the past 20 years have underestimated the number of essential genes.”

A paper describing the research was published in the March 25 edition of the journal Science by lead authors Clyde A. Hutchison III and Ray-Yuan Chuang.

“This paper represents more than five years of work by an amazingly talented group of people. Our goal is to have a cell for which the precise biological function of every gene is known,” said Hutchison.

The nonprofit research institute has offices in La Jolla and  Rockville, MD, employing 200 scientists and staff. Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla was founded by Venter to commercialize genomics developments.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.