Building New Life in a Lab May Succeed Before We Find It Among the Stars

By Veronique Greenwood | July 28, 2011 1:16 pm

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.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    That was a very well written piece. Personally I would like to have an update on Szostak’s self assembling protocells, because it would be a more complex system (with added RNA to RNA replicase). But I can see how Joyce work fits in too, and it was a welcome update!

    And kudos to Overby to start with the evolutionary definition of life, and leave until later the NASA definition. The latter fits detection of individuals instead of research on populations.

    Instead I would argue with Joyce on the point of “how you can say” how frequent life is on habitable planets. The short time to first life permits that.

    Consider: we can take a simplest possible Poisson model for abiogenesis attempts. Plug in Earth age ~ 5 Gy and first life ~ 1 Gy; its normalized delay is 0.2. With an exponential one-distribution stacking up its probability mass early, and having a one-tailed distribution, it is close to or shy 3 sigma.* So it could be a valid model, and a Poisson process gives ~ 35 % life probability @ 5 Gy.

    Amazing what you can do with one lousy data point. (O.o)
    * I know that there was a PNAS paper based on Poisson models published last week that comes to a different conclusion. This model that I have commented on since around a year ago should not be touched by that. If life is, arguably, early it would be a testable and simplest model.

  • Raisin Bran


  • Aaron

    This is completely beyond the topic at hand, but Steve Benner has made himself out to be quite the fool: “And a lot before, given the disassembling of NASA by the current administration.”


    Someone should inform him that NASA’s budget has remained steady throughout the current administration, and that if he is referring to the retirement of the Space Shuttle, that this was ordered by the -previous- administration -and- that it was the right thing to do for the sake of science and exploration; how are we supposed to find life elsewhere if we are busy dicking around in low Earth orbit? Is Dr. Benner aware of the fleet of robotic spacecraft that NASA has dispatched throughout the solar system? Is he aware that the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, will be landing at Gale Crater next year so as to, among other things, look for evidence of Martian life?

    I have become quite upset recently over the fact that a large number of people–scientists among them–imagine that our days of space exploration are over and done with and remain mournfully ignorant of the fact that we must -move on- from time to time! In this case, we are handing LEO over to entrepreneurs, and are setting course for the asteroids and Mars!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar