The identification of core genes needed for life may not only spill secrets of how biology got its start on Earth, but also shed light on the hunt for life beyond the planet.
In a milestone study published in this week's Science, a team led by the J. Craig Venter Institute reports on the creation of a bacterial cell containing a minimal number of genes needed to live and self-replicate.
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By shrinking the genetic code, scientists hope to learn the details about what keeps organisms alive and healthy, information that eventually will be applied to human health and longevity In the process, analysis of the cell, known as JCVI-syn3.0, may wind back the evolutionary clock to reveal processes from life's start, both on Earth and potentially on other worlds.
"We may be seeing some processes that occurred early in evolution," said microbiologist Clyde Hutchison, lead author of the Science paper.
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"It's going to be very interesting looking at the different (gene) functions that now exist and what it takes to put together a living, functioning, self-replicating cell to see where they all came from and how earlier life might have developed," Venter Institute founder and chief executive Craig Venter told Discovery News.
"My view is when you have the same chemical constituents they seem to always get together to form the fundament building blocks of amino acids and the bases of DNA and RNA, so I am certain that life is inevitable wherever those chemicals exist and we will find life ubiquitous throughout the universe when we can ever get far enough away from Earth," he said.
The team's technique to design, build and then test the genome also has potential applications for identifying alien life.
"This entire program started with ones and zeros (in a computer) and four bottles of chemicals," Venter said.
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"We've proven we can send this life through the Internet as code and rebuild it somewhere else, so if we sent a DNA-sequencing machine to Mars and there's DNA there, we could readily discover that code and just ship it back at the speed of light to Earth," he said.
Syn.3 turns out to have 473 genes, but Venter and colleagues cannot pin down exactly what 149 of them actually do to support the cell.
"We hope in the near future to have everything defined in the cell so we truly understand it but when you're shooting in the dark, like we were with one-third of the genes, it's a lot of trial and error," Venter said.