Essential genes are those indispensable for the survival of an organism, and their functions are therefore considered a foundation of life. Determination of a minimal gene set needed to sustain a life form, a fundamental question in biology, plays a key role in the emerging field, synthetic biology. Five years after we constructed DEG, a database of essential genes, DEG 5.0 has significant advances over the 2004 version in both the number of essential genes and the number of organisms in which these genes are determined. The number of prokaryotic essential genes in DEG has increased about 10-fold, mainly owing to genome-wide gene essentiality screens performed in a wide range of bacteria. The number of eukaryotic essential genes has increased more than 5-fold, because DEG 1.0 only had yeast ones, but DEG 5.0 also has those in humans, mice, worms, fruit flies, zebrafish and the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. These updates not only represent significant advances of DEG, but also represent the rapid progress of the essential-gene field. DEG is freely available at the website http://tubic.tju.edu.cn/deg or http://www.essentialgene.org.