Medical science can achieve some remarkable feats in the future. One of Google’s dream project announced is the research of achieving something which seems uncertain and distant till now. Calico will be a company focusing on human health and aging, in short, extending human lifespan would be its main objective. Similarly, creating life from scratch may sound unrealistic but if Google hopes to cure death in the future, then why can’t we hope to create life as well?
Many scientists believe we will soon be able to make life ourselves, in the laboratory. In a limited sense, it has already been done. In 2002 a team at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, was able to assemble a polio virus from scratch, using commercially available molecular building blocks.
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But a virus is not a fully autonomous organism (it cannot reproduce on its own). Bacteria are, and Hamilton Smith and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California have assembled an entire synthetic bacterial genome of 582,970 base-pairs. They were able to insert it into a host bacterium, but at the time of writing, they had yet to coax their customized genome to ‘boot up’ and do anything.
Craig Venter himself has been re-engineering the genetic material of small bacteria to create the simplest autonomous cell. Significant though these advances are, a word of caution is necessary. The latter two experiments do not really count as ‘making life’. Rather, they adapt existing organisms, in all their fantastic complexity, to make new types of organisms.
Even if an entire autonomous microbe is eventually built ab initio without any use of pre-existing life forms at all, it would still not settle the issue of the cosmic imperative. Life began in nature without the benefit of high-tech laboratories and delicate step-by-step procedures implemented under carefully controlled conditions.
Quite obviously it is possible to make life in the lab – all you have to do is to string together the right molecules in the right way.
Above all, it got going without the use of an intelligent designer such as Craig Venter, setting out with a specific goal in mind. Mother Nature created life in the grubby conditions of a newly formed planet (or somewhere else, we don’t know), exploiting natural, random chemical reactions, and with no pre-conceived ‘destination life’ to guide and shape the reactions.
What happened just happened. Quite obviously it is possible to make life in the lab – all you have to do is to string together the right molecules in the right way. There is nothing miraculous about it; any difficulty is entirely technical and a matter of garnering sufficient resources; with enough time, money and effort, it could clearly be done. But it won’t cast much light on how widespread life is in the universe.
If it turned out that there were very many ways to make life in the lab, and not too many carefully controlled steps needed to ‘boot it up’, it would shorten the odds in favour of the cosmic imperative. But creating a totally synthetic organism wouldn’t on its own prove that life is ubiquitous.
Summing up then, the probability of life emerging from non-life can be placed on a spectrum ranging from infinitesimal to almost inevitable, or anywhere in between. It is frustrating that so basic and crucial an issue remains imponderable. Can we make any progress at all? Indeed we can.
In fact, there is an obvious and direct way to confirm if a cosmic imperative is at work, and that is to find a second sample of life.
Even if we are to succeed in these endeavours we must also remember that what we get, we should return it as well. Which means giving back life to our nature as that alone will help us in our survival in the future.