Monday, August 20, 2007

Creating life in a lab

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.


    Nizam said...

    Great post, Salman -- this kind of development helps us recognize the flaws in the God of the Gaps theory, or the idea of "permanent mysteries" like that described by Jaron Lanier in Discover magazine recently (

    Religion may feel it has answers to certain scientific questions, but science must never sit back and concede those matters to religion, even (especially!) where they touch on primal questions like the origins of life.

    Salman Hameed said...

    I completely agree...and it stifles scientific creativity. Thanks for the Discover magazine piece - I like the binary number cult.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi Salman,

    Matt T. writing...

    This is an interesting idea, but the paranoiac in me hopes they are extremely cautious in working with this. I don't think artificial life would necessarily be dangerous, but given that "natural life" has evolved in symbiosis over billions of years means that interactions between various kinds of life are reasonably well understood even if not always beneficial (for example, hemhorragic fevers are natural, but not particularly good for hosts). Two things immediately came to mind upon reading this: one was prion diseases (e.g. mad cow), and the other was "The Andromeda Strain"...

    I find the researcher's comment at the end of the story very worrisome -- if s/he "couldn't imagine" artificial life getting out into the wild, I would say they have a very dim imagination!

    Salman Hameed said...

    Hi Matt!

    Oh..and the "reassuring" comment at the end that this won't be a problem for a very long time...

    Yes, experimenting with an 8-base life form should require some more thinking. For a completely different reason, I was reading that the black plague in the 14th century killed about 75 million! This must be 15-20% of the world population. We haven't seen any thing even close to that. I'm usually an optimist regarding new technologies, but some of these experiments are really pushing boundaries and I hope there are good safeguards in place.

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