One of the greatest challenges of modern science has been to produce life from non-living matter in a lab. It’s often cited by True Believers™ as an example of how little science really knows about reality. It’s a claim they may not be able to cling to for much longer:
A team of biologists and chemists is closing in on bringing non-living matter to life.
It’s not as Frankensteinian as it sounds. Instead, a lab led by Jack Szostak, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School, is building simple cell models that can almost be called life.
Szostak’s protocells are built from fatty molecules that can trap bits of nucleic acids that contain the source code for replication. Combined with a process that harnesses external energy from the sun or chemical reactions, they could form a self-replicating, evolving system that satisfies the conditions of life, but isn’t anything like life on earth now, but might represent life as it began or could exist elsewhere in the universe.
While his latest work remains unpublished, Szostak described preliminary new success in getting protocells with genetic information inside them to replicate at the XV International Conference on the Origin of Life in Florence, Italy, last week. The replication isn’t wholly autonomous, so it’s not quite artificial life yet, but it is as close as anyone has ever come to turning chemicals into biological organisms.
“We’ve made more progress on how the membrane of a protocell could grow and divide,” Szostak said in a phone interview. “What we can do now is copy a limited set of simple [genetic] sequences, but we need to be able to copy arbitrary sequences so that sequences could evolve that do something useful.”
The first artificial life forms will be very simple compared to even the simplest bacterias and algae alive today, but it’s probably that life itself would’ve started off pretty simple as well. If they manage to pull it off and the resulting form is viable then it’ll provide whole new areas of evolutionary research and remove one of the common arguments from Creationists.