Can we create a living organism from basic elements?

10 June 2012

Question

Hi Chris and other scientists. I listen to your podcast weekly. Love them.
Has there been any progress in creating a living organism from basic elements (CHONPS) and some heat? Seems like with so many advances in human biology, science should be able to produce a simple organism in the lab. Bob Archibald
Berkeley Ca

Answer

Hannah - We put this to Professor Lee Cronin from Glasgow University:

Lee - This is a really important question because it allow us to define life beyond the current toolbox that is used in biology on planet Earth. But to answer this question, we need to side step the definition of life and instead ask a different question which is, what is the minimal unit of matter on planet Earth that can exhibit and undergo Darwinian evolution in an autonomous fashion? And the result is both obvious and startling. It's a very simple cell - bacterial cell, amoeba and so on. So what we've tried to do in my lab is to engineer all inorganic cells to see if we can put these features together. So by using molybdenum or tungsten oxides, we've been able to make very large clusters containing many hundreds of units. But not only that. We can have different building blocks templating the clusters. So we almost have an analogy to DNA, RNA and proteins in the clusters built in. So the question now is, can we get this system to boot up to replicate and evolve? And for that, you need to watch the space.

Hannah - So, our version of life uses DNA and protein building blocks. But you can create a different type of building block by making clusters of basic metallic elements that can form structures similar to membranes and enzymes. But, getting these clusters to replicate, mutate, and evolve by themselves has not yet happened. So, we're not quite there yet.

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