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The world’s smallest synthetic lifeform can now move by itself

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Synthetic bacteria aren’t natural, and now scientists are starting to give them new abilities.

 

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Japanese scientists have “engineered the smallest lifeform that can move on its own,” and bearing in mind I’ve seen everything from mini living robots – Xenobots – made from frog cells to replicating synthetic cells unlike anything nature ever created that’s saying something. The team introduced bacterial proteins that enable movement into a simple synthetic bacterium that normally cannot move, causing it to change shape and become mobile.

 

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In 2010 scientists at JCVI unveiled the world’s first completely synthetic lifeform – a micro-organism derived from a synthetic chromosome made up of four chemicals and designed using a computer. Over the years other scientists tweaked the recipe to give the organism the smallest, simplest genome possible, while allowing it to grow and divide like natural cells.

 

See it in action

 

In the new study, scientists at Osaka Metropolitan University edited the latest version of the organism, known as syn3, to give it a new ability – movement. This synthetic bacteria is usually spherical and can’t get around on its own, so the team experimented by adding seven proteins thought to allow natural bacteria to swim.

These proteins were derived from a bacteria species called Spiroplasma, which has a long helix shape and can swim by reversing the direction of that helix. When the proteins were added to syn3, it changed from its usual round form to the same helix shape as Spiroplasma, and most importantly was now able to swim using the same technique.

 

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“Our swimming syn3 can be said to be the ‘smallest mobile lifeform’ with the ability to move on its own,” said Professor Makoto Miyata, co-lead author of the study. “The results of this research are expected to advance how we understand the evolution and origins of cell motility. Studying the world’s smallest bacterium with the smallest functional motor apparatus could be used to develop movement for cell-mimicking microrobots or protein-based motors.”

The research was published in the journal Science Advances. The team describes the work in the video below.

Source: Osaka Metropolitan University

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