Can we create life in a lab?
Scientists creating living beings in the lab is something that you might have seen in a movie (Jurassic Park, Frankenstein, the list goes on!), but is there any truth behind this? Some research groups have been looking at what are the fundamental mechanisms that distinguish living cells from inanimate objects - and then trying to create living cells in the lab. How close have they gotten to creating living beings? And what is the end goal to this kind of research? We asked 2 experts in biophysics, ‘Can we create life in a lab?’, here is what we found…
Can we create life in a lab?
What makes something alive?
To assess whether we can create life in a lab we need to agree on what ‘life’ is. Unfortunately, this is not a trivial question. All living things are made of either a single or multiple cells, which are essentially tiny bags of fluid in which lots of interesting chemical reactions occur. These chemical reactions release energy, produce proteins and copy DNA. Lots of chemical reactions also occur outside cells which we do not consider to be ‘alive’ (e.g. combustion in a car’s engine), so which exact chemical reactions have to occur for us to call a bag of fluid ‘living’?
Answering this question is exactly why many research groups are trying to create synthetic life in their labs – the idea is that once they have made a synthetic cell from scratch, they will know every component that it needs to live.
Why make a synthetic cell?
As well as helping us understand more about biology (what makes something alive?), making synthetic cells could have useful applications to daily life.
Cells could act as small factories to produce drugs, foods and fuels. In the future synthetic cells could be used in medicine to release drugs directly into the body when they sense disruptions such as cancer markers or dangerous chemicals in the environment. Synthetic cells could also be in environmental contexts, for example by acting as biosensors for pollution or toxins.
In theory, the applications of synthetic cells are infinite!
How close have we got to making living cells?
Many groups around the world have focussed on building different components of cells – for example the cell membrane, the DNA or the cell’s skeleton. Some of these lab-made synthetic components have been swapped into natural cells. For example, in 2010 a group from the Craig Venter Institute in the USA made a whole genome from scratch and then transplanted it into a small bacterial cell whose original DNA had been removed. These ‘hybrid cells’, where some components are made in the lab and some were there already, represent a step towards building fully synthetic cells.
Collaborative initiatives, such as ‘build-a-cell’, have been set up to try and piece these ingredients together to make a whole synthetic cell. So far, no one has created a completely artificial, living cell from scratch.
When asked if we can make life in the lab, Dr Petra Schwille, a biophysicist from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany, says “As always, it depends crucially on the definitions, what is ‘life’, and what ‘create’ means. If we 1) define ‘life’ as a very specifically organized form of matter, which emerges if the right molecules come together under the right environmental conditions, and if 2) ‘create’ means that we are just arranging the right ingredients by physical, chemical and biological methods, then yes, I am convinced that is not only possible, but also that we will accomplish it in the next 10-20 years.”
Dr Cees Dekker, an expert in nanotechnology and biophysics from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, is also positive, saying “Yes, I estimate that we probably can”. Dr Dekker’s research group focuses on creating synthetic cells that can divide autonomously.
How do scientists create life in a lab?
Different components of cells are made in different ways. For example, DNA can be made artificially through a series of controlled chemical reactions that mimic the normal DNA synthesis pathways that occur in our cells.
An important component of a living cell is separating chemical reactions into different compartments – if you throw all the chemicals in together, they won’t react properly. Dr Schwille is a researcher who focuses on creating these boundaries, called membranes. She works with complicated microfluidic approaches to create tiny bubbles or ‘liposomes’ which can be filled with specific chemicals. To build on this, the Dekker lab has designed a chip that can force these tiny liposomes to split into two, recreating a rudimentary form of cell division.
Despite enormous progress in the field of synthetic biology, there are still many obstacles preventing researchers from creating a fully autonomous, functioning living cell.
We are yet to make a fully synthetic living cell in the lab, but this might be possible in the future.
May the facts be with you!
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