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The first cell of synthetic life may be just 3 years away

August 26, 2007|Seth Borenstein | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch -- and they're getting closer.

Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of "wet artificial life."

"It's going to be a big deal and everybody's going to know about it," said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice, Italy, one of those in the race. "We're talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways -- in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict."

That first cell of synthetic life -- made from the basic chemicals in DNA -- may not seem like much to nonscientists. For one thing, you'll have to look in a microscope to see it.

"Creating protocells has the potential to shed new life on our place in the universe," Bedau said. "This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role."

And several scientists believe created life forms will one day offer the potential for solving a variety of problems -- fighting diseases, locking up greenhouse gases, consuming toxic waste.

Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:

- A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones in, and the ability to multiply.

- A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.

- A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.

A leader in the field, Jack W. Szostak at Harvard Medical School, predicts that in the next six months, scientists will report evidence that the first step -- creating a cell membrane -- is "not a big problem."

Szostak also is optimistic about the next step -- getting nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to form a working genetic system.

In Gainesville, Fla., Steven Benner, a biological chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, is attacking that problem by going outside natural genetics. DNA consists of four bases -- molecules that spell out the genetic code in pairs. Benner is trying to add eight new bases to the genetic alphabet.

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