Artificial life likely in 3 to 10 years
2007-08-24 0:00

By Seth Borenstein | mercurynews.com


Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch and they're getting closer.
Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of "wet artificial life."

"It's going to be a big deal and everybody's going to know about it," said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice, Italy, one of those in the race. "We're talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways—in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict."


This undated photo provided by ProtoLife Srl.of Venice, Italy, shows vesicles, artificial membranes for cells, made from scratch. Teams around the world, including ProtoLife, are trying to create synthetic life from scratch, and the first step many of them are working on is making a container for the life form such as these vesicles. The large cell container (with little ones inside of it), shown in computer-created coloring, is about the thickness of a human hair. (AP Photo/Protolife Srl., Martin Hanczyc )
That first cell of synthetic life—made from the basic chemicals in DNA—may not seem like much to non-scientists. For one thing, you'll have to look in a microscope to see it.

"Creating protocells has the potential to shed new light 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.

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.

"We aren't smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened," Szostak said.

In Gainesville, Fla., 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.

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.

"When these things are created, they're going to be so weak, it'll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab," he said. "But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen."
— 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.

"We aren't smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened," Szostak said.

In Gainesville, Fla., 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.

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.

"When these things are created, they're going to be so weak, it'll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab," he said. "But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen."

Article from: http://www.mercurynews.com/portlet/article/html/
render_gallery.jsp?articleId=6665326&siteId=568&startImage=1



Related Articles
Protolife
Patent sought on 'synthetic life'
DNA Factories
Team develops DNA switch to interface living organisms with computers
First genome transplant turns one species into another
Why Embryonic Stem Cell Research? It's About Human Engineering, Not Ending Disease
The discovery of DNA variability, holographic blueprints and the symphony of life
DeoxyriboNucleic Acid (DNA)


Latest News from our Front Page

Anglo-Saxon Sword and Helmet from Staffordshire Hoard Reconstructed
2015-05-29 0:49
Thousands of metal fragments from the Staffordshire Hoard have been reconstructed into two "significant" new 7th Century objects. Researchers have pieced together parts of a silver helmet and a previously unseen form of sword pommel. The hoard, which is valued at £3.2m, was found in a field near Burntwood, Staffordshire in July 2009. Both items have been put on display at Birmingham's Museum ...
ALEC corruption: Legislators and corporate lobbyists meet in secret at Savannah resort
2015-05-28 23:59
The Georgia Legislature has a message for voters: don't ask us about our meetings with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors. The 11Alive Investigators tracked lawmakers to a resort hotel in Savannah last week, where we observed state legislators and lobbyists mingling in the hotel bar the night before they gathered in private rooms to decide what new laws would best serve ...
Swedish politician: US is the true cause of the masses of refugees from the Middle East
2015-05-28 20:13
Editors Note: And who controls US foreign policy? Listen to Jeff Gates. The present Swedish debate about war refugees from the Middle East is an example of peer restricted expression. In the name of political correctness or perceived decency, any questioning of maximum generosity in opening Swedish borders for the refugees is indignantly rejected by the official mainstream. We have a ...
Even if Patriot Act Expires, Government Will Keep Spying on All Americans
2015-05-28 19:52
Government Will Use "Secret Interpretations" to Get Around Legal Prohibitions Mass surveillance under the Patriot Act is so awful that even its author says that the NSA has gone far beyond what the Act intended (and that the intelligence chiefs who said Americans aren't being spied on should be prosecuted for perjury). Specifically, the government is using a "secret interpretation" of the ...
The TPP, Monsanto, Rockefeller, Trilateral Commission, Brzezinski
2015-05-28 19:18
All hands on deck for global, economic, corporate dictatorship There are dots to connect here. They're real, and they're spectacular. Let me begin with a brief exchange from a 1978 interview, conducted by reporter Jeremiah Novak. He was speaking with two American members of the Trilateral Commission (TC), a group founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller and his intellectual flunkey, Zbigniew Brzezinski. NOVAK: ...
More News »