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Why “Minimal Organisms”?

The recent issue of Nature Biotechnology, which focused on synthetic biology, contained a concise and accessible editorial, “Unbottling the Genes,” outlining synbio’s next big goal, which seemed worth excerpting here:

“There are many views on what synthetic biology is, and what it should be, but one aspect that differentiates this field from previous genetic/metabolic engineering is that everything proceeds from the computer: the necessary starting materials are digital code and four bottles of chemicals (A, G, T and C). A DNA synthesizer converts these precursors into oligonucleotide (oligo) sequences in vitro. The oligos are assembled into larger pieces (genes, gene circuits and even artificial chromosomes) and, after error checking, plied into use.

The simplest application of this approach, gene synthesis, already thrives commercially. More and more laboratories are requesting genes from oligo companies rather than using laborious recombinant DNA cloning techniques and PCR. Some gene synthesis providers recode sequences to improve protein properties, such as solubility, toxicity, efficiency of translation and ease of purification. … For synthetic biology to truly transcend the current limitations, however, it will be necessary to move away from laboratory-adapted versions of ‘natural’ organisms—organisms that bring with them the genetic and metabolic ‘baggage’ of millions of years of evolution … The ideal industrial bug is not a utility player but an extreme specialist honed to metabolic perfection.

This is where another concept in the field—the minimal genome capable of supporting a self-replicating organism—becomes important. Theoretically, an organism with a genome stripped of superfluous functions that drain away carbon, nitrogen or energy could serve as a ‘shell’ or ‘chassis’ into which interchangeable cassettes of genes encoding traits of interest could be placed. … The final step of ‘rebooting’ the synthetic minimal genome has not yet been attained [see earlier post here] but we may not be so far from the goal of creating a ‘chassis’ organism—the blank canvas onto which the bold and efficient metabolic brushstrokes of synthetic biology can be made.”

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