Origin of Life Replication: Creating Synthetic Life
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Although many people believe that Charles Darwin was the father of evolution, in fact he only published twenty-five (25) words on the subject on how life began. They were: “Probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was breathed.” (On the Origin of Life on Earth, 198) Darwin's theory was that life emerged spontaneously from chemicals like nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus. However, he felt that this hypothesis would be impossible to prove since the life that is present would prevent new life from emerging. Fortunately, scientists today are optimistic - not pessimistic as Darwin was - about their ability to replicate these origin scenarios. In fact, at least three (3) current research projects are focusing on this very subject in the creation of synthetic life.
David Deamer, a chemist with the J. Craig Venter Institute who created the first synthetic genome in 2008, notes that at some point in time, scientists will discover how to assemble a molecular system with the fundamental properties of life. This process will include growth, reproduction, evolution, and the use of energy and nutrients from the environment. Deamer explains that life began on earth approximately 3.8 billion years ago and in doing so self-assembled entirely from non-living components that were existing at that time. He makes it clear when we can discover exactly how that scaffold of macromolecules came together and an immense step forward in understanding how life on Earth began - something that Darwin thought was impossible. (Science Progress - David Deamer Explains Synthetic Life, pages 1 and 3)
Gerald F. Joyce, Scripps Research Institute professor and dean is a founding champion of the “RNA World” hypothesis. This theory promotes that life as we know it is based on DNA proteins with RNA acting as a courier of genetic information. After years of experimentation, Joyce and his student found some short but dominant RNA sequences that when mixed with simpler RNA will expand 10-fold in a few hours and will go on to duplicate as long as they have space and raw material. However, this process is only conceivable if RNA can sustain evolution on its own. In January 2009, Joyce's project resulted in his 24 RNA variants reproducing. However, he emphasized that the next important step will be to engineer a set of synthetic molecules that can carry out metabolism as well as duplication. Unfortunately, none of the recombinants in Joyce's research was able to do something new - i.e. something that none of its ancestors could do. This, Joyce notes, is the “crucial missing ingredient that still separates artificial evolution from true Darwinian evolution.” (Scientific American: Synthetic Life Oozes Closer to Reality, pages 1-2)
George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor explains that although their current project is entitled the Origins of Life Initiative, the interest in life's basic functioning was for its industrial applications. Along with Research Fellow Michael Jewett, Church recently announced the formation of billions of synthetic ribosomes that easily produce a elongated, complex protein called firefly luciferase. Although Church and Jewett thought this task would be one of the hardest in the making of an artificial cell, they were astounded when this was accomplished in just one year. They stated that their ultimate goal is the creation of an artificial genome of 151 genes - which they believe are the smallest number needed to create a functioning, self-replicating cell. Additionally, at a recent symposium called “The Future of Life” human genome pioneer Craig Venter explained the hunt for genes around the world. He noted that microbes have been discovered on this planet that can withstand radiation levels much higher than that which would be lethal to humans. Moreover, he noted that these microbes can survive and thrive in corrosive substances that would destroy a human finger dipped in it, and also in a wide array of other environments. As for industrial applications, Venter explains that these synthetic genomes can be formulated to do such environmentally valuable things like make clean-burning synthetic fuels. At the same symposium, Harvard professor of genetics, Jack Szostak notes that his recent research was able to show that membranes can actually form from simple fat molecules, almost instinctively, under certain conditions. (Science Daily - Toward Synthetic Life: Scientist Create Ribosomes - Cell Protein Machinery, pages 1-3) Likewise, he explains that he has figured out how protocells could eat and bring in nucleotides to build RNA. Importantly, Szostak found that at high temperatures, protocells take in nucleotides quickly, and at lower temperatures they build RNA molecules faster. Correspondingly, he speculates that the Earth's regular temperature cycles could have been instrumental in helping simple protocells survive in the early history of the Earth. As Szostak explains, “to me, the origin of life and the origin of Darwinian evolution are essentially the same thing”. (On the Origin of Life on Earth, page 199) Alas, if Darwin was alive he would be starting to see that present life does not restrict a current scientist's ability to study how life began.
In conclusion, Darwin hoped to someday find that a protein compound chemically formed was ready to undergo even more complex changes that resulted in the formation of living creatures - now after the bicentenary of his birth, researchers like Venter, Joyce, Church, Jewett, Deamer, and Szostak are doing just that.
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