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In a recent paper in the journal Science, Venter and his colleagues announced that they had created the smallest living and reproducing organism. Their creation – called JCVI-syn3.0 – is a simple cell, with only the genes that are essential for life; it has a smaller genome than any autonomously replicating organism found in nature, larger only than those found in viruses and other entities that rely on hosts for essential functions.The team broke the M. mycoides genome into eight fragments and began deleting genes one by one. If the reconstructed organism failed to thrive, the gene was left in. In the end, 473 genes were required for the organism to thrive.The most important result of the Venter team's work was to reveal how little we know about the basic biology of life. There are 149 genes whose function is unknown. In other words, the purpose of nearly one-third of the genes needed to keep the organism alive, well, and reproducing remains a mystery.As Venter and his colleagues acknowledge, if the team began with a different microbe, or grew it in a different environment, the set of necessary genes would be different. So their genome is a minimal genome, not the minimal genome.
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