Say if you’re in space, searching for life, what do you look for? That’s simple. You look for something that resembles life on Earth; whether that be single-celled amoeba or a Star Trek-style humanoid with a lumpy head and webbed feet.
That’s life we know and understand (with some sci-fi comedy thrown in). What if there are some other unimaginable creatures that may not fit into our understanding of How Things Work™? This is a very real problem NASA has been faced with ever since the agency started sending probes to Mars and spacecraft beyond the Solar System itself. Deep space missions (like the Voyager and Pioneer probes) have intelligent life forms in mind (i.e. ones that can read, hear and interpret the Leonardo da Vinci Vitruvian Man; so it would be nice if ET also has an appreciation for fine art), but our intrepid Mars rovers and landers that have been pestering the Red Planet since the 1960s are looking for the basic building blocks of life, plus evidence of past or present life. So far, there’s been a lot of rocks turned over, yet no sign of extraterrestrial life.
Therefore, scientists at a very early stage defined “life” as a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution so we can focus on finding life we know and understand. To boost this understanding a little further, wouldn’t it be great if we could create our own evolving soup of chemicals?
Now, it seems, this has become a reality. Scientists in a Florida lab have created a beaker filled with synthetic life…
It has always been planted in the foundations of science fiction storylines; some form of synthetic life created by mankind to fulfil a higher purpose (or to provide a helping hand around the house). Naturally, the ethical and scientific problems associated with such an endeavour are often explored (take the hard-hitting classic 1984 movie Bladerunner, or more recently, the synthetic Cylons humans in Battlestar Galactica. You see, there was a reason for the Tricia Helfer picture). Key to this is whether these synthetic sci-fi lifeforms can actually be considered to be “alive” or not, and I am sure that debate will rage as to whether the beaker of water in a Florida laboratory can be considered to contain “life”.
According to Steve Benner, the lead scientist who is working on the Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System (AEGIS) experiment, his beaker of chemicals is half-way there. “It’s evolving. It’s doing what we designed it to do,” said Benner. It may have the ability to evolve, but it isn’t self-sustaining, yet. Also, it is very distinct from natural life forms, the AEGIS synthetic biology contains 12 DNA building blocks, as opposed to the four we usually see. There is no chance this synthetic life brand can be confused with the real kind.
This research has huge ramifications for the search for life on other worlds; if scientists can “build” life on Earth, we’ll gain a critical understanding as to how life may be spawned, and how it could evolve. Even the extreme case of looking for habitable exoplanets (“super-Earths”) could make use of these biochemistry experiments, possibly probing these alien worlds for the components required to create synthetic life in the lab, and not just “the usual” water and oxygen required for natural life on Earth.
There are also some closer-to-home applications of researching synthetic life. “The underlying goal of synthetic biology is to make biology easy to engineer,” said Drew Endy, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When I want to go build some new biotechnology, whether it makes a food that I can eat or a bio-fuel that I can use in my vehicle, or I have some disease I want to try and cure, I don’t want that project to be a research project. I want it to be an engineering project,” he said.