Scientists have created a "minimal cell" with just 473 genes—such work could have huge benefits beyond biologyby Philip Ball / April 4, 2016 / Leave a comment
How many genes does it take to make an organism? One answer has just been supplied by researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in La Jolla, California, among them biotech entrepreneur Venter himself. They have created a “minimal cell” christened JCVI-syn3.0, based on the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides but with a tailor-made, synthetic genome stripped of what seem to be all superfluous genes to leave just 473 of them. In the popular but somewhat misleading metaphor, you might say that these cells run on just 473 instructions.
I say “one answer” because there is nothing definitive about this number: it’s just the smallest viable genome so far identified. The question is probably ill-posed, since it depends on what you mean by “life.” Many viruses have much smaller genomes than JCVI-syn3.0, but they are not really autonomous living entities, depending instead on their ability to hijack the genetic machinery of the host organisms they invade.
And when the notion of a minimal cell like this was discussed at the first international meeting on synthetic biology (the engineering of “artificial” organisms) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004, I asked the question how far it could be expected to go before an organism would become irredeemably frail through loss of all its defences against the slings and arrows of nature. I was told that certainly there was a risk of ending up with an organism that died “the moment you looked at it.”