During my formative years, I recall reading Stephen Rose’s Penguin paperback The Chemistry of Life. While providing inspiration for me to pursue a career in biochemistry, the text opens with an interesting analogy between cooking and biochemistry. I have often recalled this line when experimenting in the lab (and also when cooking up a culinary storm!) and I was reminded of it again when reading the most recent paper from Craig Venter and colleagues reflecting that we actually have rather a long way to go before we fully understand all the essential ‘ingredients’ (in the form of the DNA) that provide the ‘minimal’ blueprint for life.
In the six years since the first description of a synthetic form of Mycoplasma mycoides (JCVI-syn1.0) was reported with its 1079kb genome, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego have used design-build-test cycles to reduce this to a 531kb genome encoding 473 genes, generating JCVI-syn3.0. What is truly remarkable, and for me at least unexpected, is that of the 473 genes required, the function of 149 of them is unknown. The study also reveals that in addition to essential and non-essential genes contained within genomes there are ‘quasi-essential’ genes – not critical but which contribute to robust growth.
To me this provides yet another example of how research that is motivated by one challenge, in this case of defining the minimal viable genome capable of sustaining (mycobacterial) life, generates a series of equally fundamental questions, in terms of identifying the function of 149 genes that are of unknown function but also essential.
BBSRC plays a key role in funding bioscience research which seeks to uncover the mysteries of life. Over the past three years we have led on the £100M ‘Synthetic biology for Growth’ programme on behalf of UK funders, establishing six multi-disciplinary Synthetic Biology Research Centres, as well as national capabilities in DNA synthesis. Enabling bioscience researchers in the UK to develop and use cutting-edge approaches is key to maintaining the health of our world-class research base.
Technology development and refinement more broadly play a vital role in enabling researchers to address previously intractable questions and this was brought into clear focus on a recent visit to The Babraham Institute. Research led by Wolf Reik has developed methodology to generate transcriptome and DNA methylome data from the same single (embryonic stem) cell. While generating new insight into epigenome-genome interactions and the biology of ES cells, this method can be applied to understanding cellular heterogeneity in many different biological systems across the animal and plant kingdoms. Contributions such as these illustrate the exciting advancements being made in understanding not only genomes, but the influence of the epigenome on blueprints for life. As we all recognise there is a great deal of fundamental biology still to be explored and explained!
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