Synthetic Biology

Some day, probably in the not too distant future, we will create life from non-living material. Commonly expressed, that’s creating life in a test tube. It’s also sometimes called artificial life or synthetic life. Some would call it ‘playing God.’ As a matter for religion or philosophy, the fact that human beings can create life will be a game changer. Many assumptions and pronouncements about the nature of life – and humankind – will need to change; and it won’t occur without resistance. For science and technology it is not so much the stunning single event of creating life from inanimate material that’s important; it’s the continuum of discoveries that flow up to that moment and then flow from it. In reaching the point where human beings can create life in the laboratory (assuming that’s where it will happen first), science will have learned much about genetics, cell biology, and the origins of life. Thereafter, even more will be learned and the technology required for artificial life will spawn new fields of study and in all likelihood new industries.

When will we create artificial life? By historical standards, soon. With almost certainty it will happen before the end of the 21st century, and probably much sooner. Research is moving rapidly along the myriad pathways that will lead to crucial discoveries unraveling the densely wound threads of DNA reproduction (meiosis) and cell creation (mitosis). Pathways is a key word in this context, as much of the knowledge we are acquiring is about the various metabolic and genetic pathways (pathways = chemical processes) that sustain and reproduce life. Sustaining life means the ability of living cells to carry out necessary metabolic functions and the ongoing creation of cells for growth and replacement. Reproduction deals with the reproduction of the species. The two are closely related but contain several areas of distinct research.

As a matter of acquiring knowledge and methods, there is a distance to go before researchers announce they have ‘created life,’ and there may be false starts along the way. It’s like assembling a gigantic mosaic from a mere outline, from a sketch that is very unclear at the beginning. However as each piece is added, the picture begins to take shape. At some point, the guessing begins – “Aha! This is what it looks like. This is how life is made!” Perhaps. When the real Eureka! moment occurs, it will almost certainly be crude, a first approximation in simple bacterial form of what may have happened on the primordial Earth. In fact, there may be a series of announcements about having achieved elements of artificial life, such as cell division, or energy metabolism, before it is announced that a whole (somewhat complete) form of life has been created. All along the way, the distinction of what is ‘life’ and what is ‘inanimate’ may be subject to debate. After all, viruses already exist in a netherworld of life. They perform a kind of metabolism, but cannot reproduce by themselves. Still, there will be the vital question: Is it alive, or not? To claim creation of life, that question probably requires an unequivocal answer.

Not entirely incidentally, the term ‘Synthetic Biology’ is also applied to a field of study that examines systems related to life and evolution. Artificial Life, as a field, uses simulations, computer models, robotics and biochemistry to imitate or recreate biological phenomena.

For SciTechStory, synthetic biology will almost always be a composite picture (piecing the mosaic). Hundreds if not thousands of steps will be announced over the years, and they will come from many scientific disciplines. Many other “impact areas” will be involved, for example, Cell Biology, DNA Decoding, Nanotechnology, and of course, Origins of Life. The challenge will be to keep track of the main developments, and not be distracted by the flood of details.