Genomes Generated: Is this the first synthetic life?

From the “well, that’s interesting” files:

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) have created a single cell synthetic organism that divides / reproduces naturally.  Does this open the possibility of creating lifeforms designed to accomplish a specific goal (e.g. decompose plastic, kill cancer cells, etc.)?  Or is it a technology that can’t really be controlled or applied in the real world?  Time will tell.

Scientists Create Simple Synthetic Cell That Grows and Divides Normally

New findings shed light on mechanisms controlling the most basic processes of life.

March 29, 2021

Five years ago, scientists created a single-celled synthetic organism that, with only 473 genes, was the simplest living cell ever known. However, this bacteria-like organism behaved strangely when growing and dividing, producing cells with wildly different shapes and sizes.

Now, scientists have identified seven genes that can be added to tame the cells’ unruly nature, causing them to neatly divide into uniform orbs. This achievement, a collaboration between the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms, is described in the journal Cell. 

Identifying these genes is an important step toward engineering synthetic cells that do useful things. Such cells could act as small factories that produce drugs, foods and fuels; detect disease and produce drugs to treat it while living inside the body; and function as tiny computers.

But to design and build a cell that does exactly what you want it to do, it helps to have a list of essential parts and know how they fit together. 

“We want to understand the fundamental design rules of life,” said Elizabeth Strychalski, a co-author on the study and leader of NIST’s Cellular Engineering Group. “If this cell can help us to discover and understand those rules, then we’re off to the races.”

I thought someone would have beaten me to the punch on this one, but the only mention of the J. Craig Venter Institute was by PZ Myers in 2007.


  1. Bruce says

    Unfortunately, the concept of “a specific goal (e.g. decompose plastic, kill cancer cells, etc.)“ could be summarized as “a goal to kill other cells or molecules”. I would hope any such creations would have very specific targets that could never become generalized through random mutation. Maybe we’re better off without cell-killer bacteria or viruses?