Early Earth's chemical seas are presumed to have given rise to the first life, but how could anything so complex have come from such a disorganized stew of molecules? That's the question Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute is exploring with his swarms of self-replicating RNA, which can evolve over time. Along with Steve Benner, Craig Venter, Jack Szostak, and others, he is on the road to creating life in the lab, thus giving us insight into both our origins and what, exactly, "life" is. As Dennis Overbye writes in a look at the field in the New York Times:
The possibilities of a second example of life are as deep as the imagination. It could be based on DNA that uses a different genetic code, with perhaps more or fewer than four letters; it could be based on some complex molecule other than DNA, or more than the 20 amino acids from which our own proteins are made, or even some kind of chemistry based on something other than carbon and the other elements that we take for granted, like phosphorous or iron. Others wonder whether chemistry is necessary at all. Could life manifest itself, for example, in the pattern of electrically charged dust grains in a giant interstellar cloud, as the British astronomer and author Fred Hoyle imagined in his novel “The Black Cloud”? Dr. Joyce said that his RNA replicators would count as such a “second example, albeit one constructed as a homage to our ancient ancestors.” So far, he said, his work with Dr. Lincoln has shown that manmade molecules can evolve over successive generations. “They can pass information from parent to progeny, they can mutate,” Dr. Joyce said. “They can win or die. The molecules are doing it all. We’re just keeping the lights on.”
“In my view," [Steve Benner wrote in an e-mail], "a terran laboratory will make synthetic life before NASA or the E.S.A. finds it elsewhere,” referring to the European Space Agency. He added, “And a lot before, given the disassembling of NASA by the current administration.”
And lest anyone forget the power of speculative fiction in spurring scientists to do exciting work, Joyce gives a shout-out to his literary inspiration:
[Dr. Joyce] says he came to his vocation by reading “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel about rockets and death in World War II, while he was a student at the University of Chicago. The last section of that book, he pointed out, is called “The Counterforce,” about pockets of life and love carving order out of the rubble of wartime Europe. For biologists the counterforce creating order and life out of chaos is simply Darwinian evolution, Dr. Joyce explained. “I wanted to be a member of the counterforce.”
Read the rest at the NYTimes.