About a half-century ago the estimated number of human genes was in the millions. Today we’re down to about 20,000. We now know, for example, that bananas, with their 30,000 genes, have 50 percent more genes than we do.
It’s time to rethink the question of how the complexity of an organism is reflected in its genome.
The number of genes we actually need for a healthy life is probably even lower than the current estimate of 20,000 in our entire genome…This research found over 700 genes which can be knocked out with no obvious health consequences.
Extrapolating the analysis beyond the human knockouts study leads to an estimate that only 3,000 human genes are actually needed to build a healthy human. This is in the same ballpark as the number of genes in “giant viruses.”
So it’s clear that a single cell does not need to be very complicated for large numbers of them to produce very complex outcomes. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that human gene numbers may be of the same size as those of single-celled microbes like viruses and bacteria.
What is coming as a surprise is the converse – that tiny microbes can have rich, complex lives. There is a growing field of study – dubbed “sociomicrobiology” – that examines the extraordinarily complex social lives of microbes, which stand up in comparison with our own.
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