NEW YORK- Scientists have created the world’s first living organism that has a fully synthetic and radically altered DNA code.

The lab-made microbe, a strain of bacteria that is normally found in soil and the human gut, is similar to its natural cousins but survives on a smaller set of genetic instructions.

The bug’s existence proves life can exist with a restricted genetic code and paves the way for organisms whose biological machinery is commandeered to make drugs and useful materials, or to add new features such as virus resistance.

In a two-year effort, researchers at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge read and redesigned the DNA of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E coli), before creating cells with a synthetic version of the altered genome. The artificial genome holds 4m base pairs, the units of the genetic code spelled out by the letters G, A, T and C. Printed in full on A4 sheets, it runs to 970 pages, making the genome the largest by far that scientists have ever built.

“It was completely unclear whether it was possible to make a genome this large and whether it was possible to change it so much,” said Jason Chin, an expert in synthetic biology who led the project.