skip to main content


Title: A Journey to the Center of Our Cells
This article written in the popular journal The New Yorker takes a look at how the world's first minimal bacterial cell, which was made by a team from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in 2016 has been used by both JCVI biologists and many other research groups to investigate the first principles of cellular life. The author, James Somers, writes much of the article using information obtained in his extended interview with JCVI scientist and minimal cell creator John Glass. The article introduces the public to ideas in synthetic biology, evolution, and the history of modern biology.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
2221237 1840320 1840301 1818344
NSF-PAR ID:
10481499
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Publisher / Repository:
The New Yorker
Date Published:
Journal Name:
The New Yorker
ISSN:
2163-3827
Subject(s) / Keyword(s):
minimal cell, synthetic biology, synthetic life, JCVI-syn3A
Format(s):
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract Data from genomics, proteomics, structural biology and cryo-electron microscopy are integrated into a structural illustration of a cross section through an entire JCVI-syn3.0 minimal cell. The illustration is designed with several goals: to inspire excitement in science, to depict the underlying scientific results accurately, and to be feasible in traditional media. Design choices to achieve these goals include reduction of visual complexity with simplified representations, use of orthographic projection to retain scale relationships, and an approach to color that highlights functional compartments of the cell. Given that this simple cell provides an attractive laboratory for exploring the central processes needed for life, several functional narratives are included in the illustration, including division of the cell and the first depiction of an entire cellular proteome. The illustration lays the foundation for 3D molecular modeling of this cell. 
    more » « less
  2. The ultimate microscope, directed at a cell, would reveal the dynamics of all the cell’s components with atomic resolution. In contrast to their real-world counterparts, computational microscopes are currently on the brink of meeting this challenge. In this perspective, we show how an integrative approach can be employed to model an entire cell, the minimal cell, JCVI-syn3A, at full complexity. This step opens the way to interrogate the cell’s spatio-temporal evolution with molecular dynamics simulations, an approach that can be extended to other cell types in the near future. 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Cell-free expression (CFE) systems are one of the main platforms for building synthetic cells. A major drawback is the orthogonality of cell-free systems across species. To generate a CFE system compatible with recently established minimal cell constructs, we attempted to optimize a Mycoplasma bacterium-based CFE system using lysates of the genome-minimized cell JCVI-syn3A (Syn3A) and its close phylogenetic relative Mycoplasma capricolum (Mcap). To produce mycoplasma-derived crude lysates, we systematically tested methods commonly used for bacteria, based on the S30 protocol of Escherichia coli. Unexpectedly, after numerous attempts to optimize lysate production methods or composition of feeding buffer, none of the Mcap or Syn3A lysates supported cell-free gene expression. Only modest levels of in vitro transcription of RNA aptamers were observed. While our experimental systems were intended to perform transcription and translation, our assays focused on RNA. Further investigations identified persistently high ribonuclease (RNase) activity in all lysates, despite removal of recognizable nucleases from the respective genomes and attempts to inhibit nuclease activities in assorted CFE preparations. An alternative method using digitonin to permeabilize the mycoplasma cell membrane produced a lysate with diminished RNase activity yet still was unable to support cell-free gene expression. We found that intact mycoplasma cells poisoned E. coli cell-free extracts by degrading ribosomal RNAs, indicating that the mycoplasma cells, even the minimal cell, have a surface-associated RNase activity. However, it is not clear which gene encodes the RNase. This work summarizes attempts to produce mycoplasma-based CFE and serves as a cautionary tale for researchers entering this field.

    Graphical Abstract

     

    more » « less
  4. null (Ed.)
    JCVI-syn3A is a genetically minimal bacterial cell, consisting of 493 genes and only a single 543 kbp circular chromosome. Syn3A’s genome and physical size are approximately one-tenth those of the model bacterial organism Escherichia coli ’s, and the corresponding reduction in complexity and scale provides a unique opportunity for whole-cell modeling. Previous work established genome-scale gene essentiality and proteomics data along with its essential metabolic network and a kinetic model of genetic information processing. In addition to that information, whole-cell, spatially-resolved kinetic models require cellular architecture, including spatial distributions of ribosomes and the circular chromosome’s configuration. We reconstruct cellular architectures of Syn3A cells at the single-cell level directly from cryo-electron tomograms, including the ribosome distributions. We present a method of generating self-avoiding circular chromosome configurations in a lattice model with a resolution of 11.8 bp per monomer on a 4 nm cubic lattice. Realizations of the chromosome configurations are constrained by the ribosomes and geometry reconstructed from the tomograms and include DNA loops suggested by experimental chromosome conformation capture (3C) maps. Using ensembles of simulated chromosome configurations we predict chromosome contact maps for Syn3A cells at resolutions of 250 bp and greater and compare them to the experimental maps. Additionally, the spatial distributions of ribosomes and the DNA-crowding resulting from the individual chromosome configurations can be used to identify macromolecular structures formed from ribosomes and DNA, such as polysomes and expressomes. 
    more » « less
  5. The bacterial strain JCVI-syn3.0 stands as the first example of a living organism with a minimized synthetic genome, derived from the Mycoplasma mycoides genome and chemically synthesized in vitro. Here, we report the experimental evolution of a syn3.0- derived strain. Ten independent replicates were evolved for several hundred generations, leading to growth rate improvements of > 15%. Endpoint strains possessed an average of 8 mutations composed of indels and SNPs, with a pronounced C/G- > A/T transversion bias. Multiple genes were repeated mutational targets across the independent lineages, including phase variable lipoprotein activation, 5 distinct; nonsynonymous substitutions in the same membrane transporter protein, and inactivation of an uncharacterized gene. Transcriptomic analysis revealed an overall tradeoff reflected in upregulated ribosomal proteins and downregulated DNA and RNA related proteins during adaptation. This work establishes the suitability of synthetic, minimal strains for laboratory evolution, providing a means to optimize strain growth characteristics and elucidate gene functionality. 
    more » « less