Evolution of a minimal cell
A bacterial genome, trimmed down to the barest minimum required for survival, teaches us what is life.
Happy Friday! As you wrap up your week, here is something to inspire and energize you to push through the last hours of work before unwinding into a relaxing weekend.
Today, from the Twitter archives, I picked an interesting story I wrote in July 2023 that unexpectedly went viral. The post reached >4 million views with >7000 reposts and >23000 likes—very unusual for a Twitter post on a scientific article to gather such attention.
Once in a while, I question myself if I am spending too much of my time on things that I am not well-qualified to do so and probably no one cares about. When that happens, I go back and revisit posts like the one below to remind myself that there are people around who care, enjoy, admire, and importantly, learn from things I write on the internet.
From the Twitter archives
Posted on Twitter in July 2023
A mind-blowing paper has come out today in Nature
In 2016, JC Venter Institute scientists trimmed a bacterial genome to its barest minimum required for life to synthesize what they called a "minimal genome".
Today, a group of scientists from Indiana University reports how that minimal genome evolved over 2000 generations in comparison to the non-minimal genome.
The authors found that even when you reduce a bacterial genome to its absolute minimum where every nucleotide matters, the genome undergoes mutational events generation after generation as much as the non-minimal genome. One simply cannot stop the evolution.
Just over 300 days of evolution (equivalent to 40,000 years in humans) the minimal cell has gained everything it lacked in fitness on day one in comparison to the non-minimal cell.
When comparing the evolved traits between the minimal and non-minimal cells, the scientists found something striking. The evolutionary process increased the cell size of non-minimal cells but not that of the minimal cell. But that is not the striking part.
The scientists were able to identify the key mutation that resulted in cell size evolution. And it turned out that the mutation that helped the non-minimal cells to grow bigger is the same that helped the minimal cells to stay smaller. Growing bigger had a survival advantage for non-minimal cells and not growing bigger had a survival advantage for minimal cells. So, the mutation had a context-dependent effect. This just demonstrates that the evolutionary effects on traits have no absolute direction. All that matters is what is beneficial for the organism's survival.
The conclusion of the paper is metaphorically a quote1 from the Jurassic Park movie:
“Listen, if there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us is that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories, and it crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but . . . life finds a way"