Cells are the basic units of life, but now scientists found a way to take matters into their own hands and actually create their own Frankenstein of cells. Scientists first created a single-celled organism with only 473 genes five years ago. Unlike the most recent cellular innovation, this simple cell grew and divided into cells of strange and unusual shapes and sizes. In an attempt to fix this, scientists identified 7 genes that when added to the cell, cause them to divide into perfectly uniform shapes. The J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology(NIST), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms all together can be accredited with this success.
How Was It Done?
The first cell with a synthetic genome was created in 2010 by the scientists at JCVI. Rather than building a cell from scratch, they started with cells from a simple bacteria called mycoplasma. The DNA already in those cells were destroyed and replaced with computer designed DNA. Thus lead to the first ever organism on Earth to have an entirely synthetic genome. It was named “JCVI-syn1.0”. Since then scientists have been working on stripping it down and reaching its minimum genetic components. Now scientists added 19 genes into this cell(including the 7 genes needed for proper cell division) and call it JCVI-syn3A. This cell variant also has fewer than 500 genes(a human cell has about 30,000). To find those 7 genes the JCVI synthetic biology group, led by John Glass and Lijie Sun, constructed multiple variants by adding and removing genes. NIST had to observe and measure the changes under a microscope. The difficulty here lay in observing the cells while they were alive, which made imaging them harder because of how small and fragile they were. Even the smallest of force could rupture them. Strychalski and MIT co-authors James Pelletier, Andreas Mershin and Neil Gershenfeld designed a microfluidic chemostat to remedy this. The article by NIST best describes this as a “sort of mini-aquarium where the cells could be kept fed and happy under a light microscope”. They discovered two known cell division genes, ftsZ and sepF, a hydrolase of unknown substrate, and four genes that encode membrane-associated proteins of unknown function, were all required together for cell division. As we learned in AP Bio, organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts are also autonomous. That simply means that they are self replicating similar to this man-made cell.
The ability to create synthetic cells could lead to potential cells that produce drugs, foods and even fuels. Others can detect disease and the drugs to treat it all while being inside your body. It’s amazing to think that humans are capable of creating synthetic life on a molecular level. One can only hope that this power is used for good in the future. Do you believe that what these scientists are doing is ethical or is “playing God” tampering with forces unknown?