As scientists, we like to assign function to structure. With the human genome, however, this association becomes difficult. The human genome is 3 billion base pairs long, but only 1.5% of the genome actually codes for protein. Some unknown part of the noncoding 98.5% of the human genome is involved in gene regulation, but what about the rest? What would a human cell look like without all the genes that do not serve a function? Recently, scientists developed a minimalist Mycoplasma mycoides, a ruminant parasite bacterium, and completed a 21-year old dream of creating a bare bone cell. This cell contains only the essential genes, necessary for sustainable reproduction. Initially, scientists expected this cell to only contain 250 genes, but the actual strain contains 473 genes. Again, not all of these genes have a protein that they code for. By understanding what function each gene serves, scientists hope to better understand the role of the remaining 98.5% of the human genome.
Studying this cell will help define what controls efficient and accurate cell division, which can help recognize and hopefully control factors responsible for cancer. Scientists can engineer cells with essential genes and add additional genes that can help produce biofuel, sustainable and ecofriendly building materials, or biodegradable polymers to replace plastic. Essentially, a minimalist cell can be designed to produce any desired molecule. Such a cell could therefore change drug delivery systems, as we know them, and perhaps lead to a more personalized and specialized form of medicine. Maybe these cells could specifically deliver drugs to a certain part of the body without causing adverse or unwanted effects on the rest of the body. Of course, these endeavors are far off and simple speculations at this point as scientists try to learn more about the 149 genes of unknown function in the minimalist cell. With the development of the minimalist cell, however, these experiments finally have a starting scaffold.
Bichell, Rae Ellen. “Scientists Build A Live, No-Frills Cell That Could Have A Big Future.” NPR. NPR, Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.