Scientists have long wondered how much further life can be stripped down and still remain alive. Is there a genetic essence of life? The answer seems to be that the true essence of life is not some handful of genes, but coexistence.

E. coli has fewer genes than we do, in part because it has a lot fewer things to do. It doesn’t have to build a brain or a stomach, for example. But E. coli is a versatile organism in its own right, with genes allowing it to feed on many different kinds of sugar, as well as to withstand stresses like starvation and heat.

In recent years, scientists have systematically shut down each of E. coli’s genes to see which it can live without. Most of its genes turn out to be dispensable. Only 302 have proved to be absolutely essential.