For over fifty years we've been figuring out life's starting point, finding how a planet-sized chemical tank turned into tigers, sharks and expressways (but not at the same place, at least until we get Michael Bay to accept our screenplay.) It all started in 1953, when one man made primordial soup in a jar - and we've been improving on the recipe ever since.
Stanly Miller outperformed every student before and since, mixing up the Cocktail of Life at the age of twenty-three. He filled a glass jar with water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen, started it circulating and blasted it with electricity until it got interesting. Protip: if any part of your drink-mixing procedure includes "something to simulate lightning strikes", you're going to see some cool stuff - in this case half of all the amino acids required to make everything alive. Not bad for a PhD.
Miller's work was energetically verified by professors at McMaster University, using supercomputer simulations to work out the thermodynamic odds of those amino acids combining even without scientists poking them with a stick: their results showed that the starter set of amino acids were indeed thermodynamically favored, a scrabble-breaking way of saying "Physics will make this happen." And once you have that base set, you can combine to get the rest.
There are still one or two (billion years of) steps between amino acids and apes with Apple iPods, but we've got those as well. Studies have shown in exhaustive detail how amino acids combine to create larger units called nucleotides. These posed the ultimate jigsaw puzzle: once they come together into RNA, we've seen how it can evolve and improve (and we do mean SEEN: the Scripps Institute rigged up RNA replicators and watched them evolve before their eyes) and eventually arrive at DNA, but we didn't know how the darn things made RNA to begin with.
Emphasis on "didn't" - University of Manchester scientists decided to solve the problem, and please note that when U of M decides on something they don't mess around: they spent a full ten years smashing together the pre-life pieces until they eventually fit together. Just as they would have done in early Earth's oceans, which were a couple of orders of magnitude bigger than a beaker and for whom ten years is barely a blink.
So what do you do when you know how it works? Easy - make a better version!
We're working on our own version, with the Toyama School of Pharmaceutical Sciences engineering entirely artificial DNA based on synthetic basepairs. The artificial genes are suitable for use in genetic engineering, and have been shown to be more stable, and can even resist DNAase chemicals which dissolve human DNA.
Or as the inevitable human-dissolving-juice-spraying-mutants will call it, "DNA 1.0"
The Primordial Primordial Soup http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2009/05/dayintech_0515
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