Scientists On The Verge of Creating Life

There’s an old joke that runs something like this: A group of scientists went to God an announced they no longer needed Him. God raised an eyebrow and replied, “Okay, I’ll go away if you can create something.” So the scientists agreed, and bent over to pick up a handful of dirt to take back to the lab. “No no no,” replied God, “your dirt, not mine.”

“It’s certainly true that we are tinkering with something very powerful here,” said artificial-life researcher Steen Rasmussen of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

“But there’s no difference between what we do here and what humans have always done when we invented fire, transistors and ways to split the atom,” he said. “The more powerful technology you unleash, the more careful you have to be.”

Such concern is escalating as more than 100 laboratories study processes involved in the creation of life, and scientists say for the first time that they have just about all the pieces they need to begin making inanimate chemicals come alive.

Unlike any other technology invented by humans, creating artificial life will be as jarring to our concepts of ourselves as discovering living creatures on other planets in the universe would be. It also would bring into sharper focus the age-old questions of “What is life?” and “Where do we come from?”

“The ability to make new forms of life from scratch–molecular living systems from chemicals we get from a chemical supply store–is going to have a profound impact on society, much of it positive, but some of it potentially negative,” said Mark Bedau, professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and editor-in-chief of the Artificial Life Journal.

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