The origin of all life on Earth is an endlessly interesting question, at least for those who don't claim "because someone spoke and then it happened." Some scientists are moving beyond discussing the question with the incredibly awesome, and obvious, idea of "Let's just build our own and see what was needed!" Researchers are developing their very own proto-life, from scratch, and they've already learned an incredible amount.
Scientists, including Harvard Medical School's Jack Szostak, expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of "wet artificial life" that they have created the first cell of synthetic life — made from the basic chemicals in DNA.
Meanwhile at the J. Craig Venter Institute , a team of scientists has refined its method for building a synthetic genome. In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers demonstrate that they can assemble dozens of snippets of DNA into a complete Mycoplasma genitalium genome in just one step in yeast.
There is ongoing debate about what constitutes life. Synthetic bacteria for example, are created by man and yet also alive. Some go so far as to say that robot “emotions” may already have occurred—that current robots have not only displayed emotions, but in some ways have experienced them.
“We’re all machines,” says Rodney Brooks author of “Flesh and Machines,” and former director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, “Robots are made of different sorts of components than we are — we are made of biomaterials; they are silicon and steel — but in principle, even human emotions are mechanistic.” A robot’s level of a feeling like sadness could be set as a number in computer code, he said. But isn’t a human’s level of sadness basically a number, too, just a number of the amounts of various neurochemicals circulating in the brain? Why should a robot’s numbers be any less authentic than a human’s?
Activists and researchers alike are concerned that patents involving the new technology of creating synthetic life could lock up exciting new avenues of bio-research solely for commercial gain. J. Craig Venter, a pioneer of such research, is praised as an innovator and criticized as an arrogant egomaniac. But hey, if you’ve created life, wouldn’t it be tempting to see yourself as a God?
[Editors note: Well folks, it seems as if we couldn't even get the Venter piece out before the controversy started. Daily Galaxy has learned that ETC Group, a Canadian bioethics organization whose eagle-eyed spotters noticed the publication of patent 20070122826 last week, has asked Dr Venter to withdraw the patent—and, on the assumption that he will not, have asked the patent office to reject it on the grounds that it is contrary to public morality and safety. ETC's main objection is that Venter's patent claims are too widely drawn and that there are areas where mankind should not meddle. As Pat Mooney, the group's boss, put it, "For the first time, God has competition." ]
Doubt it? Consider Damer's main argument: “Our technology is all built and maintained by people, and everything there is therefore artificial. You might also follow up with the challenge: is a computer virus really alive? We might ask in return: is a flu virus really alive? Where does the machine end and the living form start? Is life simply a level of complexity so that once the system becomes opaque and unpredictable enough it is alive? Is life the ability of any entity to effect self repairs or self reproduction? Is life about populations in a dynamic dance within an ecosystem?"
What's your prediction? Mine is that he's correct, but off by 25 years or so on the long side. Jason McManus, Daily Galaxy.