Scientists are moving ever closer to cracking the hidden code of life. Recently, genetic researchers engineered synthetic bacteria that could sustain life with only 473 genes — fewer than any other healthy, replicating cell currently found in nature.
By stripping an artificial cell down to the bare necessities, researchers hope to learn more about how life began on Earth and evolved over time, the study authors said. "We view life as DNA software-driven and we're showing that by trying to understand that software, we're going to get a better understanding of life," said J. Craig Venter, renowned genetics researcher and founder, chairman and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a non-profit genomics research group.
Despite this breakthrough, the take-away from the experiment is how little scientists really know about the role that genes play in sustaining life. While most of the genes in the synthetic bacteria were found to have a specific job to do, including in reproduction, sustaining cellular structure and maintaining the cell's metabolism, scientists could not determine a specific biological function for 149 genes, or roughly 31 percent of the genes needed to keep the bacteria viable and for it to thrive.
With scientists being able to decipher the role of only two-thirds of genes in what is currently the most fundamental viable cell, the prospects of understanding the 21,000 genes in a human genome remains probably at around the 1 percent level.
What the experiment proved is that scientists can now design a genetic structure in a computer, chemically produce it in a lab, and then successfully create a synthetic living cell by transplanting the lab-created genes into a ‘blank’ cell.
The ultimate goal of the research is to eventually be able to build synthetic organisms on demand. These cells could be used to produce antibiotics and other medications, biofuels, industrial materials and agricultural products. Other research efforts hope to use synthetic genes to create genetically engineered pigs that would have organs that could be transplanted into human beings.