Scientists are closer than ever to creating life from non-living materials.

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While his latest work remains unpublished, Szostak described preliminary new success in getting protocells with genetic information inside them to replicate at the XV International Conference on the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.

6 thoughts on “Scientists are closer than ever to creating life from non-living materials.

  1. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are hedging their bets already.  At least twenty years ago, I read something like this in a copy of Watchtower:  “Scientists cannot make life from non-living materials.  And even if they could, that would prove that a Designer is necessary to create life.”

  2. that would prove that a Designer is necessary to create life.

    Damn you Zilch, I was going to say that.

    The other tack is a joke my (Chrstian) wife told me.

    “A scientist says to God, “We know how you did it- we can create Adam and Eve.
    “Go ahead” says God.

    “First we need a pinch of dust”

    “Create your own dust” Said God

  3. Well, we all know that the JW’s are not particularly good at logic: otherwise, there wouldn’t still be so many of them, considering the fact that they’ve predicted the end of the world at least six times.  Somehow they’ve managed to miss the danger of the LHC going online, however.

  4. What they said.  I fail to see how a collection of idiots, who can’t even use common sense and logic NOW are going to be swayed or convinced after a scientist creates life in a lab.

    First, they’ll probably claim it isn’t really life.  Then they’ll claim it proves that there MUST be a designer.  Then they’ll claim that it proves nothing because it had to happen by accident in order for life to be created on Earth.  And that last is as close to the truth as they’ll get.

    But saying “This’ll shut them up” means you just don’t understand their capacity for willful ignorance.

    About the best we can hope for is that their yelling won’t be quite as loud as before and we can actually get more work done.

  5. I remember when I heard about the LHC, I freaked out a tiny bit. Micro black holes? What, in Europe?

    Then I read a little bit more on the subject, and it turns out the major opponent to the LHC was a biochemist.

    Something that DOF pointed out awhile back (and on his page) about how scientists really need to stick to their chosen fields seemed relevant here…

    When I learnt no actual physicists were concerned, I stopped worrying. (And learnt to love the atom smasher).

  6. Even if they make life from non-living materials, the fundies will change their argument to life having to arise spontaneously on it’s own.  Just look at their complaints about the “lack of transitional species” in the fossil record.

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