At a biological level, what is the minimal number of genes needed to sustain life in an organism? That is a question that is being asked by a group of scientists who have been engineering the genome of the bacteria known as Mycoplasma mycoides. For a few years, the team has been taking genes out and rearranging the order of the genome within this bacterium. In 2010, they engineered a strain called JCVI-syn1.0 which contained only 901 genes. That is a relatively small genome considering that a typical strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) has approximately 5400 genes; but JCVI-syn1.0 was not yet minimal. A new strain, created in 2016, called JCVI-syn3.0 has been developed that contains only 473 genes. The bacteria continue to live, thrive, and reproduce with only these genes. This strain may be pointing to the basic building blocks of life and the minimum genes necessary to sustain life and reproduction.
It is an interesting philosophical question: “What is life?” What are the basic components necessary to make something alive versus inanimate? These 473 genes may define life. An interesting side-bar is that 65 of these genes are known to be necessary for life, but it is not known what they are doing in the cell. Further research into the function of these 65 genes will be a key area of future research.
Another fascinating aspect of this research is that the researchers have been organizing the genes into little modules and keeping genes of similar function together in the genome. Evolutionary change has put genes in a certain order, but these scientists have found that they can change that order and make it more convenient for their work without detrimental consequences to the bacteria. CRISPR technology has made the whole process simpler and led to the recent rapid developments.
This brings science a few steps closer to creating synthetic life. Of course, at this stage, researchers are simply reassembling the components supplied by the Creator to build a synthetic cell. How far might humans be able to go in building other cell structures beyond these artificial genomes? Whatever one thinks of such biological engineering, it is important to be aware of the directions in which science is moving. There are philosophical, theological, and ethical implications of such research. We must be ready to discuss and give guidance in these areas as technology continues to push boundaries.