Albert Libchaber and his team at Rockefeller University have made the first steps towards creating a form of artificial life.
These “vesicle bioreactors” are hybrid creations: the soft cell walls are made of fat molecules taken from egg white and the cell contents are an extract of the common gut bug E. coli, stripped of all its genetic material.
This cell contains much of the biological machinery needed to make proteins; the scientists also added an enzyme from a virus to allow the vesicle to translate DNA code and when they added genes, the cell fluid started to make proteins, just like a normal cell would.
The bioreactors are not alive – they’re performing simple chemical reactions that can also happen in cell-free biological fluids.
But the result is groundbreaking for synthetic biology, where the aim is to re-design entire organisms, or recreate them from scratch.
Albert Libchaber’s hope is to build up towards a minimal synthetic organism able to maintain itself like a living cell.
As these constructs become more lifelike, the rest of us will have to start rethinking the nature of life.
“For me, life is just like a machine – a machine with a computer program. There’s no more to it than that. But not everyone shares this point of view,” commented Dr Libchaber.