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Making Life from Scratch

Artificial intelligence is not human intelligence, nor is synthetic life the same as life with evolutionary history.

Robert L. Dorit

The Dawn of Synthetic Biology

Today, a new area of research that similarly aims to mimic a complex biological phenomenon—life itself—is taking off. Synthetic biology, a seductive experimental subfield in the life sciences, seems tantalizingly to promise custom-designed life created in the laboratory. But here, too, I suggest that language—word choice fueled by an ambitious agenda—misleads us. Just as Deep Blue shed some light on, but did not replicate, the workings of Kasparov’s brain, synthetic biology imitates but cannot replicate living organisms.

Fueled in part by the triumphs of reductionist biology—the deciphering of the fundamental molecular mechanisms of life, the full cataloguing of chemical reactions in the cell, and the decoding of genomes—researchers are seeking not just to understand life but also to make organisms that will do our bidding: make biofuels, synthesize pharmaceuticals, make chemicals sustainably, clean fouled water, produce food, and fight disease. Technological breakthroughs, including the automation of laboratory tasks and dramatic increases in computational storage and power (comparisons with Deep Blue beckon) have expanded the scope of synthetic biology. In 2000 the first synthetic genomes, assembled by “cutting and pasting” sequences from existing genomes and then parsing them together, were successfully inserted into Escherichia coli. In 2008 researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the successful synthesis of the smallest bacterial genome, that of Mycoplasma genitalium, over half a million bases in length. In 2010 a one-megabase synthetic Mycoplasma mycoides genome was inserted into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell, effectively transforming one Mycoplasma species into another in a single stroke.

Today, the prospect of understanding life by making life is no longer untenable. The goals of synthetic biology are Promethean, and I suspect that both our failures and our probable eventual successes will indeed end up teaching us about the actual world of the living—just not in the ways we might expect.

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