Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Monday, May 24, 2010

Artificial Life: some assembly required

Inoculated as we are against surprise, a dubious gift of the internet and our information overloaded age, there are still things that are best heard sitting down with a stiff drink. The announcement last week by Gibson et al. and the J. Craig Venter Institute of the creation of 'artificial life' was indeed best heard this way.

The 'Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome' is a landmark work. So what did these guys do ? Put simply, they built complete genomes - stretches of circularly linked DNA of about 1.08 million nucleic acid base-pairs - according to the known blueprint of a real organism, the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. They then stuffed these genomes into the cells of another bacterium, that had been scraped clean of native DNA, and managed to get these new artificial-synthetic-hybrid organisms to multiply and function as if they were natural.

A number of things stand out as remarkable (apart from the estimated $40M price tag, which may make these the most valuable bacteria ever). The first is deceptively mundane. In publishing this result they also released a pretty complete 'read these instructions before attempting assembly' paper. Running to 29 pages it's a wee bit more complex than your typical flat-pack from IKEA, and probably a bit more frustrating, but here it is, a step-by-step guide to how to glue one thousand pre-made base sequences of 1080 base-pairs length together to make an organism. At first one's reaction is 'cool', then as it sinks in the questions begin.

What strikes me is how this is surely the ultimate nail in the coffin of the idea of 'vitalism'. That is the notion, harking back a couple of thousand years, that life is somehow imbued with a vital spark, is something more than the sum of the parts, is special. This experiment, to my mind, is saying nope, it's really quite ordinary. Stick the right molecules together in the right order, provide the right environment, and let it go. Now of course the blueprint was taken from nature, not designed (apart from the cheeky base-pair watermarks quoting James Joyce and providing email addresses,  distinguishing the new bacteria). I think it'd be hard to argue though that there is something 'vital' about the design - a printable list of 1.08 million A's, T's, C's and G's. Of course life is still a remarkable phenomenon, and by the time you get to complex organisms like us it's increasingly difficult to peel away the layers to say that we're not 'special'. But this is an amazing and complex universe, apparently capable of assembling such intricate structures - given time and the right conditions. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke; any sufficiently complex phenomenon is indistinguishable from magic.


Anonymous said...

This is certainly amazing news and the only reason it isn't a bigger story is I think a lot of people have thought of this as an inevitability for a while now.

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