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Image credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

Human-made bacteria has the tiniest genome ever

This artificial lifeform has a mere 473 genes.

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J. Craig Venter Institute

Believe it or not, creating artificial life (albeit based on existing species) isn't new. However, scientists have managed a particularly unusual feat: they've built synthetic bacteria that has the smallest known genome of any lifeform... ever. Their modification of Mycoplasma mycoides has just 473 genes, or so few that it likely couldn't survive and reproduce if you shrank the genome further. The trick was to do a better job of determining which genes were essential. Many of those that weren't deemed necessary in the past turned out to be half of a vital pair, giving researchers a good sense of what they could afford to cut.

This isn't flawless. The gene count is optimized for the friendly conditions of the lab -- the bacteria could easily die in the wild. Also, the creators still couldn't identify the roles of 149 genes, so there's a chance that some of them could vanish without hurting the organism's sustainability. Regardless, this is a big step forward in biology. It'll help identify the DNA necessary for life, and could eventually help scientists create organisms completely from scratch.

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