Artificial Life

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Artificial Life

Since Mary Shelley first dreamed up Frankenstein's monster in the early 19th century, and perhaps long before, scientists have wondered if it would be possible to create artificial life.  It's been 50 years since ordinary chemicals were first used in the lab to create artificial DNA.  Now we are on the brink of the ability of scientists to create what can be legitimately called "artificial life forms" in the lab.

According to The Washington Post,1 researchers in Maryland recently built the first artificial chromosome, the genetic instructions that allow an organism to grow and reproduce.  Soon those scientists will be able to make chromosomes for life forms that are entirely new. 

This new field of so-called "synthetic biology" is being powered by high-tech synthesizers that can whip up new sequences of DNA in minutes rather than months.  This makes possible the creation of cells that could produce new drugs or even a substitute for gasoline.  In fact, Maryland-based Synthetic Genomics, headed by Craig Venter, is working on making cells to produce ethanol, hydrogen, and other fuels.  Another company called Ls9, in San Carlos, California, is reprogramming E. coli bacteria to make a substitute fuel that is expected to sell for $1.25 a gallon.

With trillions of dollars at stake, the question of who owns the rights to these and other synthetic organisms is paramount.  The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has recently received an avalanche of applications for new life forms. 

There is nothing that guarantees that the U.S. will continue to lead in this field.  Scientists at the University of Nottingham have created cell membranes in the lab, one of the keys to artificial life, from reprogrammed versions of existing organisms.  According to a report published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition,2 they assembled long polymer chains to form the membrane.  Cells made with that membrane could have their first applications in targeted drug delivery systems, where the membrane structure helps selectively target cancer cells or bacteria. 

As explained in Scientific American,3 a big objective behind commercialization of artificial life is establishing effective human control of industrial processes at the molecular level.  Therefore, more and more scientists are designing and trying to build living systems that are much like industrial technology in that they behave predictably, they use interchangeable parts, and they can do things that no naturally occurring organism can do...

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