Much is debated about the first organism on planet Earth. Everything indicates that the first living things were microorganisms, perhaps similar to single-celled algae. These living things were quite simple, and over billions of years, they developed into more complex microorganisms. It turns out that researchers have managed to develop 'minimalist' cells that reproduce in the laboratorylike bacteria.
In 2016, researchers had already developed cells with only 473 genes essential for survival. However, these cells ended up losing their original formation and had great difficulty forming small colonies in lab cultures. Now, moreover, scientists have used this essential cell model to reintroduce some genes.
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The result is impressive: artificial cells that can successfully divide in the laboratory.
The researchers inserted a set of 7 more genes. in particular, ftsZ e sepF are sequences that encode proteins important for the fluidity and shape of the plasma membrane. These last two, therefore, have a very important function during cell division.
James Pelletier, co-author of the study, tells NewScientist that most of the genes present in these minimalist cells have functions that are still completely unknown. However, the researchers know that they are essential because when they are removed, the cell perishes.
The engineering of artificial cells
As stated by the authors, as well as by several other researchers, this discovery may be quite important for understanding the beginning of life. More or less like a game of trial and error, the research evaluates several essentialities of the probable primordial cells of the planet. This approach of reducing to the most essential mechanisms of an organism may help even in the developmentof a completely artificial cell.
Of course, there are many technological and ethical hurdles before that milestone, but the possibility is there. Even before that, this methodology could be much more practical for understanding how certain genes work. That's because testing one by one is still hard work and will certainly take dozens of years.
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However, computer science may help, in the coming years, to identify what are the most basic genetic components of each cell. With this in hand, new treatments for diseases such as cancer may come to market. Moreover, the genetic modification of microorganisms may be close to a new milestone in history.
This is because, from the research results, researchers have the possibility to create organisms from scratch, with extremely selectable and modifiable characteristics.
The article is available in the journal Cell.