Scientists engineer first synthetic cell that undergoes division and growth

What if we could engineer synthetic cells to develop into useful chemicals? Or “program” cells so that they perform specialized tasks on demand?

After more than a decade of research, scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and MIT have created a synthetic single-celled organism that can divide and grow like an organic living cell.

Back in 2010, a team of researchers at JCVI discovered how to engineer the world’s first cell with a synthetic genome. That cell, called JCVI-syn1.0, was followed by JCVI-syn3.0 in 2016.

JCVI-syn3.0 only had 473 genes (for reference, E. coli bacterium has over 4,000 genes) and was the simplest living cell ever known. However, it proved to be too simple and wasn’t able to divide into uniform shapes and sizes.

Now, the team has developed JCVI-syn3A, the newest version which contains 19 more genes than JCVI-syn3.0, including seven that are required for regular cell division. This variant successfully divides into uniform orbs and is an impressive breakthrough that brings scientists one step closer to a more thorough understanding of cell division.

The team knows how two out of the seven cell-division-involved genes function, but there is more work to be done to understand the remaining five. With more research, the team hopes that the progress conducted in the lab could someday lead to engineering chemicals to make food, fuel, or even act as microscopic drug factories that can treat diseases from inside your body.

For a world that faces food insecurity, energy emergencies, and health crises, the continued study of synthetic cells and the process of cell division could have an immensely positive impact on the future of our species.

If you want to know more about this revolutionary breakthrough, check out the research here.

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