Already a high potential for the largest biology breakthrough of the year: the creation of a new synthetic lifeform called JCVI-syn3.0. Craig Venter, the Elon Musk of biotech, has developed the smallest genome in the world. Syn3.0 is a life form that consists of only 473 genes, which is about 50 less than its natural counterpart, and represents the bare minimum of requirements for an organism to live. Craig Venter and his team from the J. Craig Venter Institute removed non-essential parts of the organism piece by piece. The new streamlined genetic structure allows synthetic biologists to add new functionalities (genes) one by one.
Syn3.0 is the successor of Syn1.0, the first synthetic self-replicating organism, created by the institute in 2010. Based on this experience the researchers first tried to develop a new minimal cell designed in a set of genetic blueprints. When this resulted in failure after failure the team changed tactics, the trail-and-error method which eventually resulted in Syn3.0. The labour-intensive work consisted mostly of disabling or removing certain genes and concluding which ones were needed for the cell’s survival.
And not only did Venter’s team remove unnecessary genes, they also reorganised those genes based on their common pathways – a series of chemical reactions occurring within a cell. As bioengineer Christopher Voigt (MIT) explains the big milestone lies in that reorganisation. It suggests there is the possibility to design a viable genome that is simple, modular and organised – all elements of human design. And if humans can indeed design a structured alternative to natural life it has great implications in biology and attests to “the complexity of biology simply being an artefact of how it was shaped by evolution.”
While it seems this shows a complete understanding of the biological make up of the organism, the study concludes that there quite a few quasi-essential genes that are not absolutely critical but are “required for robust growth”. Also about one third of the genes that are apparently essential do still contain unknown biological functions. According to Alistair Elfick (University of Edinburgh) these unknown genes are “like the ‘dark matter’ of biology.”
I think we’re showing how complex life is, even in the simplest of organisms – Craig Venter on Syn3.0
Venter saw the journey between Syn1.0 and Syn3.0 as a check on their hubris, they had not yet gained sufficient knowledge of biology to build an organism from the ground up. While Syn3.0 is a major step in biological research it is not an universal minimal cell, had they started from a different microbe the set of genes would have been completely different.
These kinds of innovations show the potential of the recent developments in synthetic biology, but they also show us the need to be humble. Even the J. Craig Venter Institute, which has been working on this for the past twenty years and employs 200 top researchers, cannot confidently predict our knowledge about the biological make-up of life. Some cautiousness before implementation might thus be appropriate. When discussing biotech we need to give due to the hard work of biotech researchers and at the same time ensure we have a realistic view on our knowledge about biology.
The new creation is an significant step towards complete understanding of a living cell’s workings, and an important lesson about our – still incomplete – understanding of biological life. And in doing so is one more step in Venter’s 20 year mission to synthesize a genome. Venter’s team now intents to further determine the functions of these enigmatic genes. Thus Syn3.0 provides both a small and manageable base for further biological research into the necessities of life, as well as a platform for further engineering of functional living organisms in synthetic biology.
Want to learn more about Syn3.0?
- JCVI Press Release
- The original Science publication
- Science Magazin: Synthetic microbe lives with fewer than 500 genes
- Quanta Magazine: In Newly Created Life-Form, a Major Mystery