Cell Division: Scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have identified 5 genes of previously unknown function which are used in cell division by nearly all modern bacterial species.
Identifying these genes is an extension of decades of synthetic biology advances at JCVI, expanding on our understanding of the first principles of life.
JCVI constructed the first cell with a synthetic genome (Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0) in 2010, which is nearly identical to the wild type Mycoplasma mycoides subspecies capri (with the addition of watermarks), a bacterial parasite commonly found in goats. Building on this work in 2016, the team constructed a bacterial cell that encoded only 473 genes—fewer than half the number of genes found in JCVI-syn1.0—needed for replication and other vital cell functions. This new, near minimal cell, which has the smallest genome of any known cell capable of growth in laboratory media, was dubbed JCVI-syn3.0.
At the time of the minimal cell discovery, scientists noted that while JCVI-syn1.0 cells looked identical to the wild type, JCVI-syn3.0 cells were notably larger and exhibited unusual behavior when dividing. Senior author Elizabeth Strychalski, Ph.D., group leader of the Cellular Engineering Group at NIST, and first author James Pelletier, Ph.D., then a graduate student in the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, developed microfluidics experiments where it was possible to observe and compare cellular division of JCVI-syn1.0 and JCVI-syn3.0.
“James and Elizabeth’s observations told us that we had removed genes from a naturally occurring organism that enabled it to divide like a normal cell. This sent our team on a seven-year journey to discover what genes were responsible for modern cell division,” commented John Glass, Ph.D., senior author and leader of the synthetic biology group at JCVI.