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Hard work creates simple life

By David, 5 June 2016

a collection of small round shapes, clumped together.

Scanning electron micrograph of a cluster of Syn 3.0.
Credit: Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California at San Diego.

It takes a lot of information to make a human. It’s kept in our cells as DNA, which contains at least 20 000 genes. Some other forms of life can get by with much less DNA and fewer genes. Now one team of scientists think they’re close to making the simplest living thing possible.

The team used a bacterium known as Mycoplasma mycoides, which has a very small set of DNA. The team looked at all the genes in the bacterium and tried to work out which ones were most important.

It took a lot of experiments to choose what to cut. Some genes were easy to cut out, as they had unimportant functions. Sometimes, they would find two genes that did similar jobs. The bacterium could survive without one or the other, but died when they took both genes out!

After a lot of cutting, the team created an even smaller set of DNA. The new bacterium had 473 genes. They transplanted the new DNA into cells, which stayed alive and reproduced. They had created a new, living cell!

There’s still a lot to learn about this new bacterium, known as Syn 3.0. Scientists don’t know what 149 of its genes actually do. If we want to learn more about how bacteria work, those genes might be a good place to start looking.

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