Patt Morrison for August 12, 2011

Artificial life: not in outer space, but in a petri dish, right here on Earth

Mercer 20190

frankenstoen/Flickr

Petri dish concoction.

After countless science fiction films and novels, we’ve come to assume that if alien life exists, it exists in outer space. Well now, it could be the case that the first place we encounter alien life is right here on Earth. Chemists and biologists are closer than ever to producing artificial life right here from chemicals in a petri dish. While scientists do not always agree on the definition of life, most agree that something is alive if it is able to evolve and adapt. And in fact, researchers have created an RNA, or ribonucleic acid, molecule in a test tube that can replicate and evolve, with a little nudging from researchers. The goal is to get the molecule to evolve all on its own, without human assistance. If this RNA molecule can’t do it, several other alternatives are being tried out such as reconstructing the genome of an E. Coli bacterium and a bacterial goat parasite so that it can reproduce itself. Why create life? Scientists say that once they’ve done so, they will better understand how life began and how to recognize life if it does in fact exist in outer space. Is there and will there be resistance to creating artificial life? If we create life, what will we do with it? Is there more to gain or more to loose from venturing into this unknown world?

Guests:

Steven Benner, distinguished fellow with the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution

Arthur Caplan, director, Center for Bioethics; professor of medical ethics, University of Pennsylvania


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