Michael Ellison has a dream: to reconstruct a living thing inside a computer, down to every last molecule. It is, he said, “the ultimate goal in biology to be able to do this.”

It’s a dream that Dr. Ellison, a biologist at the University of Alberta, shares with other scientists, who have imagined such an achievement for decades.

Understanding how all of the parts of an organism work together would lift biology to a new level, they argue. Biologists would be able to understand life as deeply as engineers understand the bridges and airplanes that they build.

“You can sit down at a computer, and you can design experiments, and you can see the performance of this thing, and then you can figure out why it’s done what it’s done,” Dr. Ellison said. “You’re not going to recognize the full return of the biological revolution until you can simulate a living organism.”

In the past few years this fantasy has become plausible and now Dr. Ellison is part of an international team of biologists who are now trying to make it a reality. They have chosen to recreate Escherichia coli, the humble resident of the human gut that has been the favorite species for biology experiments for decades.

“We picked the simplest organism about which we know the most,” Dr. Ellison said.

Scientists may know more about E. coli than they do about any other species on earth, but that doesn’t mean that creating a virtual E. coli will be a snap.

Many mysteries remain to be solved, and at the moment even a single E. coli may be too complex to recreate in a computer.

But the effort is still worthwhile, some scientists argue, because it would become a powerful tool for drug testing, genetic engineering and for understanding some of life’s deepest mysteries.

Discovered in 1885, Escherichia coli soon proved easy to raise in laboratories. Its popularity boomed in the 1940’s when scientists figured out how to use it to pry open the secrets of genes.

In the 1970’s scientists figured out how to insert foreign DNA into E. coli, turning them into biochemical factories that could churn out valuable compounds like insulin.

“Everybody studies E. coli for everything,” said Gavin Thomas, a microbiologist at the University of York in England.

Research on E. coli accelerated even more after 1997, when scientists published its entire genome.

Scientists were able to survey all 4,288 of its genes, discovering how groups of them worked together to break down food, make new copies of DNA and do other tasks.

Some scientists speculated that before long they might understand how all of the pieces of E. coli worked together.

Such speculations were not new. In 1967, Francis H. C. Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, and the Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sydney Brenner had called for “the complete solution of E. coli.”

But the call went unheeded for over 30 years. After all, E. coli contains an estimated 60 million biological molecules. Simulating all of them at once was an absurdly difficult task.

But by the late 1990’s, it began to look plausible, although not necessarily easy. Despite decades of research, many of E. coli’s genes still remain a mystery – “probably around 1,000 genes,” Dr. Thomas said. “There’s a lot more we need to know about E. coli before we can build a really solid model.”

To find out more, E. coli experts have been joining forces.

In 2002 they formed the International Escherichia Coli Alliance to organize projects that many laboratories could do together.

In one project, researchers have created over 3,900 different strains of E. coli, each missing a single gene. “It would have been foolish for two or three labs to carry this out at the same time and compete with each other,” said Barry Wanner of Purdue University, who led the project.

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