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I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

5. LIFE Previous | Next

Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?

THIS might seem like a strange thing to label as an anomaly, but no one knows what life is. Researchers have even given up trying to define it. Now they are just trying to understand it by making it from scratch. It sounds like an audacious, ridiculously ambitious project, but it isn’t really. After all, what makes you so special? You are made up of lifeless chemicals; what makes you alive?

Craig Venter is one person trying to find out. He is stripping out a bacterium, and then refilling it with a synthesised genome to create what he considers to be artificial life. But others say he’s just tinkering, re-engineering. A project at Los Alamos, headed up by Steen Rasmussen, is looking to create something that’s alive from a collection of chemicals, most of which you could buy at the supermarket. Will it come alive? After having a nervous lunch in Los Alamos with Rasmussen (the place spooked me out), I’m not convinced it will be something I would ever call life. But maybe that’s because it’s too worrying. What would it mean for our concept of ourselves if we created life?

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Location:New Orleans
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#1 - Posted: 14/08/2008 07:48

Forgive my lack of formal education (G.E.D.) please, but when reading my siblings college biology and chemistry books I remember reading that Amonia, under certain temperatures and pressures has very similar properties to water. Elsewhere I read of another element besides Carbon having 4 electrons in its outer shell (Or was it similar properties to C due to the configuration of electrons in its outer shell?) which could enable it to act as C does.  At any rate this got me thinking of divising a lab experiment that takes Amonia under the right conditions and uses other elements to begin to build a mirror of the building blocks of living cells on earth. We would take the DNA chain for example and create something to effect the same function it has in living cells. Likewise, the cell walls, ribosomes, RNA, mRNA, etc, etc. and create all the building blocks, Stable and functional in this soup of Amonia, with the ultimate goal of creating a living, Growing, Self replicating, functional cell, that is not based on life on earth. Of course this experiment would take more than a lifetime to complete but I've often thought how the process itself might teach us reams alone; not to mention if success were ever achieved. Also, we would not have to worry about this artificial life ever taking over the earth seeing as it could not survive under conditions conducive to life here now. Anyway, as I have not made it to college as hoped, it would be nice to see this attempted one day.

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#2 - Posted: 09/04/2009 01:54

Yes, I believe you're thinking of Si (silicon), it is right below C on the periodic table, and would thus behave much like carbon in a lot of respects, but there are fundamental differences would could (Note: not necessarily would) make it a poor basis for life. And whereas I agree that experiments should be done to try construct amino acids using Si instead of C, there are others who would call it 'blasphemous' to try creat life like that, and even if you don't mean to create life with these experiments, if successful, where else would it lead? No one has ever made a monumental discovery and said "Okay, let's leave it at that", it's just not human nature. Also, creating all the parts that make up life and throwing them together doesnt mean life will happen (make all the parts of a car and throw them in a box, the car won't work). And saying that it could never take over because it couldn't survive here isn't necessarily true, a defining characteristic of life is that it evolves and adapts... Be careul what you wish for.

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