The Cross-Border Biotech Blog

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Biotech Trends Update — Synthetic Biology: Smallest Genome May Not Provide the Best Roadmap

One of the trends we’ll be following for 2010 is synthetic biology — efforts to create entirely novel organisms and systems from “scratch.” A fundamental question in the quest to create novel life forms is what the minimal genome is that will comprise a living organism.

Scientists have been looking for, and at, existing organisms with small genomes to try to answer that question; but a series of reports on the genome of one such organism suggests they may be looking in the wrong place.

Mycoplasma pneumoniae has one of the smallest known genomes among free-living organisms — just 816,000 base pairs — so it seemed like a good candidate for understanding life’s minimal requirements. However, three Science papers this week show that the organism uses a bunch of very sophisticated tricks to squeeze a lot of function out of its small genetic pantry.

My guess is that it will be easier to deduce minimal requirements by experimenting on organisms with better characterized, though larger, genomes than by trying to decipher all the tricks of the Mycoplasma trade.

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3 responses to “Biotech Trends Update — Synthetic Biology: Smallest Genome May Not Provide the Best Roadmap

  1. Sean Flaherty November 29, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Awesome article. Question: Would we have figured out the “Tricks of the Mycoplasm trade” had we not tried to deduce the minimal requirements. It seems to me that this is extremely useful science.

    • Jeremy G November 29, 2009 at 8:32 am

      Thanks. No doubt it’s fascinating science. As with much (most?) research, it has turned out to be useful and interesting for different reasons than the ones that drove people to study it in the first place. I’m okay with that result and I’m okay with renewing the grants (which have obviously produced important work), but I’m also okay with noting that if the goal is synthetic life, this may have been a wrong turn.

  2. Pingback: Trends Update — Synthetic Biology: JCVI’s First Synthetic Cell (or, A Goat Walked Into a Lab) « The Cross-Border Biotech Blog

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