Artificial bacteria created in lab learn to reproduce perfectly for first time

Artificial bacteria made in a lab have been shown for the first time growing and reproducing in just the same way as natural living cells.

Pioneering US geneticist Craig Venter created the first artificial life in a lab 11 years ago – using basic components to build what he called "minimal" cells.

The work was described by one researcher as "a defining moment in biology".

But follow-up work done by Elizabeth Strychalski at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology revealed that the artificial bacteria weren’t splitting to create regularly-sized daughter cells as naturally-occurring lifeforms do.

They were instead dividing into bizarre, irregular shapes and sizes.

Ventner’s team, in their quest to create a streamlined lifeform with only the basic equipment for living, "had thrown out all the parts of the genome that they thought were not essential for growth," said Strychalski.

She painstakingly added genetic components to the new synthetic organism one at a time until it began to reproduce as expected, identifying the seven key genes required to allow the cells to create identical copies of themselves.

Strychalski and her team published their results on March 29 in the scientific journal Cell.

While two of these seven genes were already known to be associated with reproduction, the other five had been a complete mystery to scientists until now.

"A number of the genes in the minimal cell did not have a known function," said co-first author James Pelletier, speculating that they may be involved in the formation of the membrane that encloses the cell.

Strychalski described the discovery that the five mystery genes were needed as "surprising".

"Our study was not designed to figure out the mechanisms inside of the cell associated with each of these genes of unknown function," she added.

"That's going to have to be a future study."

The artificial cells could have all sorts of proposes, from delivering precisely targeted medicines to building entire computers on a microscopic scale.

Jef Boeke at New York University told New Scientist: "The potential applications are vast, in agriculture, nutrition, biomedicine and environmental remediation.

"The ability to correct and refine biological code like this is a crucial step to getting us there."

"There's just so many ways in which this coming century of biology could potentially change our daily lives for the better," Strychalski said, adding that future scientists will be able to "imagine all the things we can do" with what she describes as a "minimal platform" for artificial life.

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