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While his latest work remains unpublished, Szostak described preliminary new success in getting protocells with genetic information inside them to replicate at the XV International Conference on the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.”
By doing “something useful” for the cell, these genes would launch the new form of life down the Darwinian evolutionary path similar to the one that our oldest living ancestors must have traveled. Though where selective pressure will lead the new form of life is impossible to know.
“Once we can get a replicating environment, we’re hoping to experimentally determine what can evolve under those conditions,” said Sheref Mansy, a former member of Szostak’s lab and now a chemist at Denver University.