The first artificial life form has been created by human biological life. Humans have crossed the Rubicon of creation by bypassing natural evolution and by designing the first artificial life form, have opened the floodgates of life’s evolutionary future.
Craig Venter and his team were the first scientists to sequence the human genome and have now created the first artificial life-form; a tiny new bacterium or synthetic cell, controlled by human engineered DNA, with its genetic instructions determined by human life.
The scientists have made a synthetic copy of the genome of a bacterium- Mycoplasma mycoides. This man-made genome was then transplanted into a related bacterium- Mycoplasma capricolum. This process “rebooted” the cell so that it was controlled by the synthetic genome, transforming it into another species. The cell has since divided more than a billion times.
The creation of this living organism is the culmination of 15 years of research, costing more than $47 million. But the cost is miniscule in comparison with its glittering potential benefits. It promises a new industry, generating synthetic bacteria capable of cleaning up pollution, producing new forms of green chemicals and fuels, capturing CO2 in designed algae and providing vaccines against disease.
The creation of life has been an ongoing human endeavour for at least 50 years, since Stanley Miller successfully synthesised amino acids, essential for the formation of proteins and life, using simple molecules such as water, ammonia and methane, exposed to an energy source such as ultraviolet radiation.
Since that time a number of paths have been taken by researchers to recreate the genesis of life including-
Resurrecting extinct species- such as the marsupial Tasmanian tiger and Woolly mammoth- extracting still viable DNA and implanting it in related species such as the Tasmanian devil and African elephant. But the notion of resurrecting Einstein or Shakespeare as present-day geniuses is highly doubtful, because evolution is not just a product of genes, but is a dance between genetics and the environment.
Re-engineering current species- reversing evolutionary changes and genetic switches to recreate the previous ancestor; for example producing teeth in chickens as birds related to ancient dinosaurs. The importance of this technique is that it demonstrates life as a continuum, with many of the genes from yeast and fruit flies still existing in modern humans.
Cloning new species- this can be achieved using the technique of hybrid speciation, which involves first mating two closely related species, such as single-cell yeasts. A small percentage of the offspring spontaneously clone themselves and some also change gender, thereby creating a new species of yeast.
The current artificial life-form has been created by manipulating of the code of life– the chemical bases needed to develop artificial chromosomes and therefore novel amino acids, proteins and life.
Producing new life-forms to order by designing novel DNA, is a comparatively recent process. It is a direct consequence of recent successes in sequencing DNA as well as the creation of component genome databases. This facilitates the assembly of genetic buuilding blocks into living systems in the same way that electronic components are combined to manufacture circuits and chips or software modules to create business services.
Flexible and reliable fabrication technology, together with standardised methods and design libraries have enabled a new generation of biological engineers to already create new organisms from biological components from the ground up, providing the basis for the new science of synthetic biology.
Molecular biology has previously largely been applied as a reductive science, but now synthetic biologists are building organic machines from interchangeable DNA parts that work inside living cells- deriving energy, processing information and reproducing.
Concurrently with developments in synthetic biology, another new form of life- Intelligent Software Agents, have been developed by computer scientists, representing artificial life in the form of adaptable evolutionary software programs. These are designed to provide autonomous and cooperative problem-solving support to humans through the application of artificial intelligence- primarily evolutionary, swarm and knowledge-based algorithms.
But the Holy Grail of life’s creation – evolving a living cell from scratch- has yet to be achieved. This is because many separate initial evolutionary processes have to take place first, including the evolution of- cell containment vesicles, an optimal genetic code such as DNA or RNA with the machinery to translate it into amino acids and proteins; the incredibly complex epigenetic processes providing signaling pathways from the cell’s environment and methods to fine tune its basic DNA; plus the machinery of cell replication, development, apoptosis and metabolism etc
In a sense Venter’s achievement has relied heavily on hijacking the machinery of existing cellular operation– much as Einstein did by borrowing Riemann’s mathematical framework for his theory of relativity. In other words he piggy-backed a free ride to life.
But this doesn’t detract in any way from the monumental human achievement in understanding better the enigma of life and creating it afresh in its full glory.
Because of this breakthrough it will now be possible to create not only new bacteria, but eventually the complete spectrum of new life-forms – plants and animals, including perhaps a new species of humans. In other words bringing artificial life from the super-natural to the human-natural realm of creation.
This glittering potential is balanced by unforeseeable risks; a synthetic bacterium With the capacity to mutate and proliferate outside the lab, doing untold damage to the environment by accelerating new disease pathogens and affecting the genetic blueprint of crops and animals including humans. It also will have the capability to be used as a biochemical weapon.
But science’s Pandora’s Box has been opened yet again. Now there are three players in the great game of life- biological, artificial and virtual.
All three will have to learn to co-exist and accommodate with each other; as over time the biological, technological and social barriers dissolve and they eventually merge into a new form- Meta-life.