Alien life-forms may be nearer than you think

SAN DIEGO — Here in a laboratory perched on the edge of the continent, researchers are trying to construct Life As We Don’t Know It in a thimbleful of liquid.

Generations of scientists, children and science-fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.

But it could soon happen on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.

By some measures, Gerald Joyce, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, has already crossed that line, although he would be the first to say he has not — yet.

Biologists do not agree on what the definition of life should be or whether it is even useful to have one. But most do agree that the ability to evolve and adapt is fundamental to life.

Providing insight

They also agree that having a second example of life could provide insight to how it began and how special life is — or is not — in the universe.

“Everything we know about life is based on studies of life on Earth,” said Chris McKay, a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.

Joyce said recently: “It drives me crazy when astronomers say, ‘Surely the universe is pregnant with life.’ If we have an Earthlike planet, what are the chances of life arising? Is it one in a million? Is it one in two? I don’t see how you can say.”

He continued, “If you had a second example of life, even if it were synthetic, you might know better. I’m betting we’re just going to make it.”

Four years ago Joyce and a graduate student, Tracey Lincoln, now a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, evolved a molecule in a test tube that could replicate and evolve by itself, swapping little jerry-built genes in a test tube forever, as long as it was supplied with the right carefully engineered ingredients.

An article in the Joyce Laboratory newsletter called it “The Immortal Molecule.” Joyce’s molecule is a form of RNA, or ribonucleic acid, which plays Robin to DNA’s Batman in Life As We Do Know It, assembling proteins in accordance with the blueprint encoded in DNA. Neither RNA nor DNA is alive by itself, any more than any other chemical, such as bleach, or a protein. But in Joyce’s test tube, his specially engineered RNA molecule comes close, copying itself over and over, and evolving.

But, Joyce said, “We really would hope for more from our molecules than just replicating.”

Reproduction is the job of any life, he explained, but Earthly organisms have evolved a spectacular set of tricks to improve the odds of success, everything from peacock feathers to whale songs. Joyce’s molecules have not surprised him by striking out on their own to invent the molecular equivalent of writing a hit pop song.

It is only a matter of time, he said, before they do.

“Our job is to give them the running room to do that,” he said.

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