Craig Venter and a team from the JCVI have created the smallest genome needed for functioning life.

473 genes. That is the bare minimum needed for functioning life, according to synthetic biology entrepreneur Craig Venter. Dubbed “syn3.0”, the bacterium created by Venter and his team carries the smallest known genome of any living organism.

The bacterium Venter and his team have created is the first step in understanding the core genetic functions of life. Perhaps most astounding is that in spite of methodically testing each and every gene to see what was essential and what could be removed, the purpose of 149 of these essential genes remains unknown.

“Our attempt to design and create a new species revealed that 32% of the genes essential for life in this cell are of unknown function, and showed that many are highly conserved in numerous species,” Venter explained.

Syn3.0 is the culmination of 20 years work for the J Craig Venter Institute to understand the basic components of the genome. In 2010, Venter and colleagues unveiled the first “synthetic life”, a genome designed by computer and transplanted into a living yeast cell. But the rise and rise of powerful genome-editing techniques such as CRISPR raises the question of why bother to design genomes from scratch when manipulating existing ones is becoming so simple?

Speaking with Nature, Venter acknowledges this concern, but remains confident that his methods have a critical role in studying genomics. “If you want to make a few changes, CRISPRs are a great tool,” he says. “But if you’re really making something new and you’re trying to design life, CRISPRs aren’t going to get you there.”