Understanding the unknown functions of these genes may lead to the creation of new diagnostic tests for clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups
Once again, J. Craig Venter, PhD, is charting new ground in gene sequencing and genomic science. This time his research team has built upon the first synthetic cell they created in 2010 to build a more sophisticated synthetic cell. Their findings from this work may give pathologists and medical laboratory scientists new tools to diagnose disease.
Recently the research team at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) published their latest findings. Among the things they learned is that science still does not understand the functions of about a third of the genes required for their synthetic cells to function.
JCVI-syn3.0 Could Radically Alter Understanding of Human Genome
Based in La Jolla, Calif., and Rockville, Md., JCVI is a not-for-profit research institute aiming to advance genomics. Building upon its first synthetic cell—Mycoplasma mycoides (M. mycoides) JCVI-syn1.0, which JCVI constructed in 2010—the same team of scientists created the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell, which they called JCVI-syn3.0. This new artificial cell contains 531,560 base pairs and just 473 genes, which means it is the smallest genome of any organism that can be grown in laboratory media, according to a JCVI-SGI statement.
For pathologists and medical laboratory leaders, the creation of a synthetic life form is a milestone toward better understanding genome sequencing and how this new knowledge may help advance both diagnostics and therapeutics.
“What we’ve done is important because it is a step toward completely understanding how a living cell works,” Clyde Hutchison III, PhD, told New Scientist. “If we can really understand how the cell works, then we will be able to design cells efficiently for the production of pharmaceutical and other useful products.” Hutchison is Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Professor at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Understanding a Gene’s True Purpose
According to the JCVI researchers, 149 genes have no known purpose. They are, however, necessary for life and health.
“We know about two-thirds of the essential biology, and we’re missing a third,” stated J. Craig Venter, PhD, Founder and CEO of JCVI, in a story published by MedPage Today.
This knowledge is based upon decades of research. JCVI seeks to create a minimal cell operating system to understand biology, while also providing what the JCVI statement called a “chassis for use in industrial applications.”
What Do these Genes Do Anyway?
The JCVI team found that among most genes’ biological functions:
• 41% are responsible for genome expression information;
• 18% relate to cell membrane structure and function;
• 17% pertain to cytosolic metabolism;
• 7% suggest genome information.
“JCVI-syn3.0 is a working approximation of a minimal cellular genome—a compromise between a small genome size and a workable growth rate for an experimental organism. It retains almost all the genes that are involved in the synthesis and processing of macromolecules. Unexpectedly, it also contains 149 genes with unknown biological functions, suggesting the presence of undiscovered functions that are essential for life,” the researchers told the journal Science.
More research is needed, the scientists say, into the 149 genes that appear to lack specific biologic functions.
Unlocking Mystery of the 149 Genes Could Lead to Advances in Genomic Science
“Finding so many genes without a known function is unsettling, but it’s exciting because it’s left us with much still to learn. It’s like the ‘dark matter’ of biology,” said Alistair Elfick, PhD, Chair of Synthetic Biological Engineering, University of Edinburgh, UK, in the New Scientist article.
Studies such as JCVI’s research is key to broadening understanding and framing appropriate questions about scientific, ethical, and economic implications of synthetic biology.
The creation of a synthetic cell will have a profound and positive impact on understanding of biology and how life works, JCVI said.
Such research may inspire new whole genome synthesis tools and semi-automated processes that could dramatically affect clinical laboratory procedures. It also could lead to new techniques and tools for advanced vaccine and pharmaceuticals, JCVI pointed out.
—Donna Marie Pocius