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Synthetic Biology Research and Applications: An Open Letter From John Glass

John Glass

Dear colleagues,

Since the minimal cell idea was proposed by Max Delbruck and his Phage School colleagues in the 1930s, biologists have sought to build a cell that encodes only the minimum set of genes necessary for life. Such a minimal cell could be used to investigate the first principles of cellular life.

In 1984, Morowitz proposed that the mycoplasmas would be the best bacteria to use as a starting point for construction of a minimal cell. After over two decades of developing the technology that enabled our team to attack the task of building a minimal cell, our J. Craig Venter Institute team has built a minimal bacterial cell starting from a mycoplasma.

We identified all the starting organism’s genes that are non-essential for growth and then designed, built, and booted up a new genome that encoded only the remaining genes, which are essential for life. Now, we have gone from being synthetic biology tool builders to biologists investigating the nature of this remarkably interesting bacterium. While the minimal cell concept sounds relatively simple, its complexity increases under scrutiny – one third of genes have no known function and most of those unknowns are widely conserved in prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

Currently, our Venter Institute team, along with collaborators at the Universities of Illinois and Florida, are discovering the functions of many of these genes of unknown function and incorporating this knowledge into a whole-cell computational model that embodies minimal cell biology. We are also investigating an extraordinary phenotype of our minimal cell that breaks the linkage between cell growth and cell division.

In my keynote talk at the Synthetic Biology and Gene Editing strand of 4Bio, I will not only present our results but discuss the design, construction and analysis of a minimal bacterial cell. I hope that you will be able to join me in London.

Best wishes,

John Glass
Professor & Leader of the Synthetic Biology and Bioenergy Group, J. Craig Venter Institute

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