The Continuing Mystery of Life’s Building Blocks

A team of scientists has created an organism with only the genes that are essential to life – an effort that also reveals how little we know about basic biological processes. Indeed, the scientists have not figured out the purpose of nearly one-third of the genes needed to keep the organism alive, healthy, and reproducing.

GARRISON, NEW YORK – Imagine for a moment that you have come across a trove of marvelous devices left by an ancient civilization. These mysterious instruments vary widely in size and complexity, but they all share a few wondrous capabilities.

If you want to understand how they work, it makes sense to start with the simplest and smallest device, then systematically carve off pieces until it stops working. Eventually, everything that is inessential will be gone, and you will be left with only the components necessary for it to perform its basic functions. And then, once you figure out what each of those pieces does, you will have your answer.

This is roughly the journey of discovery that the American biotechnologist J. Craig Venter and his colleagues have been taking for the past two decades – only their marvelous devices are not archeological remains, but living organisms. And the pieces they are trying to understand are the genes that we share with all other forms of autonomous, reproductive life.