For decades scientists have been growing cells in a petri dish. From bacterial colonies to actual human cells, we can take cells from a living organism and allow it to proliferate in-vitro using various chemical and biological agents to aid the process. But what if we could grow cells from scratch? Without any living precursor added to the mix or quite literally, create cells? In an incredible achievement of genetic engineering, scientists have developed a single-celled, fully-functioning synthetic organism in a lab.
The organism named JCVI-syn3A is an engineered unicellular bacteria-like life form. It can grow and divide much like a normal cell and mimics the natural cell division cycle. Decades of genomic sequencing and analysis and understanding the roles of individual genes inside living creatures has aided this achievement.
The study was led by James Pelletier from MIT and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is published in the journal Cell.
“Our goal is to know the function of every gene so we can develop a complete model of how a cell works,” said Pelletier.
It’s not the first artificial genome that has been created. The first successful artificial genome was created in 2003 in the form of a virus that infected certain bacteria.
JCVI-syn1.0: the first organism on Earth with an entirely synthetic genome was in 2010 at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI). It was made by natural DNA stripped from Mycoplasma mycoides.
Then JCVI-syn3.0 was created with 473 genes. Its genomic length was shorter than any known self-sustaining, living organism in the natural world.
Finally, all these previous developments led to the creation of JCVI-syn3A, with 19 new genes. It is more “normal-looking” than its predecessors. The cell divisions are also more regular with much less morphological variations than the previous generations.
Though the work is quite impressive, a lot of mystery still surrounds these genes. Of the 19 new genes in this version, only seven are believed to have an actual role in cell division being more regular. Two genes— ftsZ and sepF—are the only ones with identified functions.
“JCVI-syn3A thus offers a compelling minimal model for bacterial physiology and platform for engineering biology broadly,” the paper states.
“We want to understand the fundamental design rules of life,” says Elizabeth Strychalski NIST’s Cellular Engineering Group leader. She believes this cell could help discover that.