“Advances in synthetic biology occupy an increasing place in our understanding of the fundamental principles of living things”

Flames. “Synthetic biology. “By its name, evoking an ambition to create life from scratch, this discipline seems likely to arouse all fantasies. Synthesize the living, for what? Become master of his creature, like the myths of the Golem or the sorcerer’s apprentice? What guarantees that this emanation does not escape potential Dr Frankensteins? But behind these too hasty caricatures, the objectives set by researchers in this field are much less sacrilegious.

Certainly, technological prowess with high media potential is one of the keys to the success of the field, often helped by a few small shortcuts in communication. An example ? In 2010, when the JCVI, an institute created by the pioneer of genetic sequencing J. Craig Venter, announced the birth of JCVI-syn1.0, the first microorganism whose genome had been fully synthesized in vitro, it is welcomed as the first synthetic organism.

However, only its genome, made up of 901 genes, is produced in the laboratory by following the genomic plans of the bacterium. Mycoplasma mycoides. However, beyond these announcement effects, advances in synthetic biology occupy an increasing place in our understanding of the fundamental principles of living things.

The basics necessary “for life”

Their main contribution consists in identifying the bases necessary for “life”: the capacity of an organism to maintain itself, to reproduce identically and, in the long term, to evolve according to a Darwinian model. The idea is not only to know the necessary and sufficient molecular components of living things, but also to ensure that they work together, and to determine the minimum frame.

Read also Can we “biocontain” microorganisms?

In order to define the latter, the JCVI had, in 2016, stripped the prototype 1.0 of all the superfluous, by providing its successor JCVI-syn3.0 of a new synthetic genome reduced to 473 genes. However, this minimal microorganism remained imperfect. Instead of generating cells that are all identical, well separated from each other like 1.0, its division was poorly controlled, giving rise to aberrant morphologies, hazardous distribution of the genome, and very slow growth.

This flawed platform offered an ideal opportunity to search for the ingredients to reconstitute a division identical to that of 1.0, and thus to identify genes crucial for cell division in mycoplasmas. As she describes it in the newspaper Cell of March 29, the team proceeded in blocks, systematically replacing segments of the 1.0 genome with the corresponding segment of the 3.0 genome, in search of a portion that would disrupt division. The culprit was thus circumscribed to a segment of 76 genes which differed between the two microorganisms.

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“Advances in synthetic biology occupy an increasing place in our understanding of the fundamental principles of living things”

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