Monday, September 08, 2008

In the Beginning

The holy grail, or at least the last unconquered castle of evolutionary biology is the origin of life. Attempts to create an imitation of life have now been underway for more than a half century, but the latest attempts are pretty fancy. The trick has always been to get something that could replicate both itself and the instructions for doing so.

All the cells alive today have an intricate set of mechanisms for doing just that - essentially the *same* intricate set of mechanisms, but something that complex could hardly have arisen spontaneously. So the question is what might less complex but still functioning intermediate forms look like, and could they plausibly be that biggest missing link of all - the link between alive and not alive.

Jack Szostack of Harvard Med has a new model:

A team of biologists and chemists is closing in on bringing non-living matter to life.

It's not as Frankensteinian as it sounds. Instead, a lab led by Jack Szostak, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School, is building simple cell models that can almost be called life.

Szostak's protocells are built from fatty molecules that can trap bits of nucleic acids that contain the source code for replication. Combined with a process that harnesses external energy from the sun or chemical reactions, they could form a self-replicating, evolving system that satisfies the conditions of life, but isn't anything like life on earth now, but might represent life as it began or could exist elsewhere in the
universe.


Read the story for more details.