We just learned how to rewrite life with an algorithm: a computer-designed genome to better understand synthetic life
What you don't see there, what is inside the plastic 'hood' is a way of life that has never existed before. Furthermore, it is the first genome to be completely designed by a computer. It is true that synthetic life has been with us for more than a decade, but things like Caulobacter ethensis-2.0 make it clear that there is still everything to do.
About ten years ago, Craig Venter and his team created the first "synthetic" bacteria. He was able to copy and synthesize the genome of the bacterium 'Mycoplasma mycoides'. It was a historic moment. Now, the Christen brothers at ETH Zurich have done something slightly different: use an algorithm to simplify genome production to the maximum without losing information. They have created a new and (quite) functional genome.
Rewrite life to understand it
Improve C. Ethensis. This bacterium is a very common microorganism that lives in the water of springs, rivers, freshwater lakes around the world. It is harmless and is often used as a bacterial model in half-planet laboratories. So it is surprisingly well studied. For example, we know that while it has about 4,000 genes, only 680 are crucial to its survival under laboratory conditions.
How to make a genome? Precisely that is what made it a very interesting bacterium to do what the Christens intended to do: make the process of genome synthesis easier by going to the source of the problem. In other words, he wanted to simplify the genome in such a way that it was easy to synthesize without losing important information.
And the truth is that "the synthesis of these segments is not always easy. DNA molecules can not only adhere to other DNA molecules, but, depending on the sequence, they can also be twisted into loops and knots, which often makes it difficult the production process and even making manufacturing impossible ”, explained Matthias Christen.
And voilà The researchers put the genome into the algorithm and picked up a new genome (one sixth smaller) that allowed them to easily synthesize it with just 236 segments. That is, the algorithm recomposed the algorithm to do the exact same thing more easily. The result was not optimal, but it was surprisingly good: approximately 580 of the 680 artificial genes that were shown to be fully functional.
Because it is important? This work, like other very interesting ones that go along the same lines, is part of a key effort to start rewriting the foundations of life. And not to "play Gods", for that we already have others enlightened; but to better understand how that complex set of letters that we call human nature works.