Science & religion debates, on many occasions, center around issues of origins. It is about defining limits & boundaries and this justifiably makes scientists uncomfortable. For a while, the origin of the Earth was considered a problem beyond the boundary of science. But not today and now we have a very detailed explanation of the formation of the Solar System.
We may be getting closer to solving another origins question - the origin of life. Here is a claim that scientists will be able to create life from scratch in the next 3-10 years. This is a bold (and exciting) claim!
"Creating protocells has the potential to shed new life on our place in the universe," Bedau said. "This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role."
And several scientists believe man-made life forms will one day offer the potential for solving a variety of problems, from fighting diseases to locking up greenhouse gases to eating toxic waste.
If you are creating life at home, please note of the following minor challenges:
Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:
A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.
A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.
A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.
One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School, predicts that within the next six months, scientists will report evidence that the first step -- creating a cell membrane -- is "not a big problem." Scientists are using fatty acids in that effort.
Szostak is also optimistic about the next step -- getting nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to form a working genetic system.
His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over.
I'm not a biologist, so I don't know how crazy and speculative these ideas are. However, scientists have been making attempts in this direction for a few decades now, so its totally plausible that we are getting close. I love the last step of letting evolution take over after mixing-in the right ingredients - I do that with cooking all the time.
And here is the Frankenstein we were all waiting for in the news story:
In Gainesville, Florida, Steve Benner, a biological chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution is attacking that problem by going outside of natural genetics. Normal DNA consists of four bases -- adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (known as A,C,G,T) -- molecules that spell out the genetic code in pairs. Benner is trying to add eight new bases to the genetic alphabet.
Eight new bases! If successful, this would indeed be quite awesome...but don't know what kind of effects it will potentially have.
Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could "run amok," but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very long time before that is a problem.
I hope so. Still a very neat story.
Now lets solve the issue of the origin of the universe.