The biochemical language of life contains synonyms. Just as two words can have the same meaning, different combinations of “letters” in a genome can code for the same substance. Last week, scientists revealed they had built a stripped-down, fully working version of Escherichia coli, with some of these synonyms taken out (the gut bacterium is often used as a model organism in basic research). The work was carried out by England’s Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and published in Nature. Syn61, as this lab-made bacterium has been called, is a double milestone in synthetic biology, the quest to build life from scratch. It is the largest working synthetic genome yet built, coming in at four times the size of the previous record holder. It has furthermore been constructed using 61 rather than 64 codons (the combinations of letters that constitute the protein-generating instructions for organisms, including humans). Stripping out some of nature’s synonyms opens up...

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