Should scientists attempt to create artificial life?

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frankenstein's monsterThe idea of creating life from scratch is deeply rooted in the imagination, from ancient mythology up to modern science fiction. Yet recent scientific advances in understanding what defines life at the molecular level has brought us into an era when generating life from a synthetic primordial soup is within the realm of possibility.

An important advance toward this end was recently made by a team at the UK Medical Research Council when they announced the creation of artificial enzymes from artificial DNA and RNA made from synthetic amino acids and nucleic acids, respectively. This milestone achievement is a first step into directed evolution that exploits the underlying machinery of the cell. In time, research with artificial biological systems could open up new medical therapies, where synthetic enzymes operate side-by-side our natural ones.

Furthermore, the components for producing a completely artificial cell are close at hand, in light of recent advances in creating artificial cell membranes. That means completely artificial, reproducing cells are potentially a generation away.

Yet concerns with “playing God” tend to surface whenever strides are made in nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Even as the benefits of these technologies have the potential to extend longevity and improve health for all, the incredible biological power that is now available to all, for good or evil, has very significant implications.

So do the benefits of creating artificial life outweigh the detriments? Should scientists even be attempting this research?

 

[image credit: Frankenstein’s monster/Wikipedia, test tube plant courtesy of Shutterstock]

I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

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