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July 27, 2011
SAN DIEGO — Here in a laboratory perched on the edge of the continent, researchers are trying to
construct Life As We Don’t Know It in a thimbleful of liquid.
Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that
humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an
enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.
But it could soon happen right here on
, according to a handful of chemists and biologists
who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will
jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when
chemicals in a test tube will come to life.
By some measures, Gerald F. Joyce, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute here, has already
crossed that line, although he would be the first to say he has not — yet.
Biologists do not agree on what the definition of life should be or whether it is even useful to have
one. But most do agree that the ability to evolve and adapt is fundamental to life. And they also
agree that having a second example of life could provide insight to how it began and how special
life is or is not in the universe, as well as a clue for how to recognize life if and when we do stumble
upon it out there among the stars.
“Everything we know about life is based on studies of life on Earth,” said Chris McKay, a
researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, Calif.
Dr. Joyce said recently: “It drives me crazy when astronomers say, ‘Surely the universe is pregnant
with life.’ If we have an Earthlike planet, what are the chances of life arising? Is it one in a million?
Is it one in two? I don’t see how you can say.”
He continued, “If you had a second example of life, even if it were synthetic, you might know
better. I’m betting we’re just going to make it.”
Four years ago Dr. Joyce and a graduate student, Tracey A. Lincoln, now a researcher at the
University of Massachusetts Medical School, evolved a molecule in a test tube that could replicate
In Test Tube, Hint of Chemicals Coming Alive - NYTimes.com
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