Why haven't scientists been able to create life in the lab?

09 May 2010

Question

Perhaps a meteorite crashed into the earth and combined with terrestrial material and gases to kick start simple forms of life.  Given how much we know about microbes and their DNA and chemical content, why haven't scientists been able to create simple living organism from scratch in a lab?

Answer

Kat - In fact, they have. Craig Venter, the US Genome Sequencing bod, publisheda report in the journal Science a couple of years ago - they did actually completely build a very simple bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium from scratch. They made all the DNA and they kind of put it all together. It was incredibly hard to do. The fact that we know the genome sequence of a lot of organisms and particularly simple organisms like viruses and bacteria is a far cry from actually making the DNA in exactly the right order, building that DNA strand and then putting the whole thing together. But I think Craig Venter's grand plan is to make artificial life. This is certainly a start and it has kind of been done. So, yes - it has been done, but it's very difficult.

Chris - But the cynics would say that he used a cell that had already been made and then put the genetic material in and it's that key thing is that membrane being made, it's the biochemistry that kick starts the DNA you put in into action which is the key recipe, the key ingredient in life that we just don't understand at the moment.

Kat - That's true and some people did say, "you've just stuck an instruction book into this bag of stuff!" I think building the rest of it is going to prove more tricky. The fact that we know what makes it up doesn't prove that we know how it's been put together. But obviously, the more we understand about how enzymes work, how organisms work, it might be possible. In terms of creating life from scratch, there were the famous experiments by Stanley Miller in the 1950s and '70s, mixing together a whole bunch of chemicals, zapping it with electricity and making things like simple amino acids. So those kind of experiments are being done as well. So, it may be that we will see completely artificial life appearing in the lab soon.

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