The concept of laboratory technicians creating artificial organic life has been a staple of science fiction since the very beginning of the genre itself.
The strange truth is that it isn't science fiction anymore, and in fact it hasn't been for quite a while. Scientists have been creating genuine artificial life forms in the lab for several years now.
They're getting pretty good at it, too, as Lissette Padilla explores in today's DNews report.
Earlier this year, scientists with the J Craig Venter Institute officially reported that the creation of the planet's smallest organism, in terms of genome size. The mycoplasma bacterium was quite literally assembled, gene by gene, like a tiny li'l Frankenstein. (Yes, we know, technically it's Frankenstein's monster.)
The fact that the organism is so small, and so simple, is actually testament to the enormously sophisticated science required to pull off the feat. Because the mycoplasma bacterium has only 473 genes -- compare to 25,000 for a human -- it can tell us a lot about how life works at the building-block level.
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Those 473 genes are believed to be the absolute minimum genome required for the bacterium to survive and replicate. This allows scientists to isolate specific genes and determine their function with unprecedented accuracy. Studying organisms with larger genomes is much more tricky, in that it's difficult to establish precisely what each gene does.
And because these tiny organisms can self replicate, scientists have a virtually inexhaustible supply with which to make useful comparisons.
While some worry that manipulating life at this level is dangerously close to playing God, it's clear that the study of synthetic bacterial life could have significant benefits. In addition to advancing gene editing techniques and drug development, the research could help us find new ways to use our own immune system to fight off disease.
Double Secret Bonus Trivia: The name of the tiny synthetic cell, in case you want to send a card, is JCVI-Syn3.0.
-- Glenn McDonald
Science Mag: Design and synthesis of a minimal bacterial genome
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Discovery News: Synthetic Life Dies Without Mysterious Genes