'Life finds a way': Scientists study evolution in synthetic bacteria with limited genes

The results demonstrated that synthetic cells may develop at almost the same rate as normal cells.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Electron micrograph of a cluster of minimal cells magnified 15,000 times.
Electron micrograph of a cluster of minimal cells magnified 15,000 times.

Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman 

Scientists have attempted to understand the evolution of the simplest organisms, which lack the majority of their required genes. 

An Indian University team led by evolutionary biologist Jay T. Lennon created a "synthetically constructed minimal cell" organism to conduct a series of intriguing experiments.  

The results demonstrated that synthetic cells may develop at almost the same rate as normal cells. This points towards a minimal life adaptability skill to evolve and survive even with an unnatural genome. 

The authors say this experiment exemplifies the phrase "life finds a way."

“It appears there’s something about life that’s really robust. We can simplify it down to just the bare essentials, but that doesn’t stop evolution from going to work,” said Lennon in an official release. 

Evolution with limited genes  

To put this ability to the test, the researchers used a synthetic creature called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn3B, a minimal bacterium form of M. mycoides. This bacteria lives in the intestines of goats and other similar animals. 

Surprisingly, the genes of this parasitic bacterium have been naturally lost over millennia. And it has evolved to be mostly reliant on its host for nutrients. 

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California conducted further experiments in 2016 to eliminate 45 percent of the 901 genes from the normal M. mycoides genome. 

This led to the creation of the M. mycoides JCVI-syn3B, which consists of just 493 genes. It has fewer genes than many animal and plant genomes, which contain an average of over 20,000 genes.

The researchers went on to assess how the minimum genome of M. mycoides JCVI-syn3B might adapt to the processes of evolution over time. They especially assessed how the organisms' natural selection process would occur with regard to limited genes. 

They began by allowing synthetic creatures to evolve freely in the lab for 300 days.

They then devised an experiment to test the performance of the 300-day-old minimal cells subjected to free evolution. They compared the results to those of the original, "non-minimal" M. mycoides, as well as those of the control experiment, which included minimal cells that had not evolved for 300 days. 

The findings of the experiment 

“They found that the non-minimal version of the bacterium easily outcompeted the unevolved minimal version. The minimal bacterium that had evolved for 300 days, however, did much better, effectively recovering all of the fitness that it had lost due to genome streamlining,” mentioned the statement. 

Furthermore, the scientists identified specific genes that altered over the course of 300 days. 

Some genes were discovered to have a role in cell surface development, while the activities of numerous others remain unclear.

The work is crucial for understanding how the simplest form creatures overcome evolutionary hurdles, which would help to demystify some biological problems. It is also useful in the treatment of clinical infections.

“The team demonstrates the power of natural selection to rapidly optimize fitness in the simplest autonomous organism, with implications for the evolution of cellular complexity. In other words, it shows that life finds a way,” concluded the statement.