What ex­actly is life?

Sci­en­tists still don’t know, but they can tin­ker with, search for, maybe cre­ate it

The Covington News - - RELIGION - By Seth Boren­stein

WASH­ING­TON — Philoso­phers wrestling with the big ques­tions of life are no longer alone. Now sci­en­tists are strug­gling to de­fine life as they ma­nip­u­late it, look for it on other plan­ets and even cre­ate it in test tubes.

In June, re­searchers re­placed the ge­netic iden­tity of one bac­terium with that of a sec­ond mi­crobe. Other sci­en­tists are try­ing to build life from scratch. NASA sci­en­tists are search­ing for life in space but aren’t sure what it will look like. And some fu­tur­ists are pon­der­ing the prospect of ro­bots be­com­ing so hu­man they might be con­sid­ered a form of life.

So as sci­en­tists push the bounds of bi­ol­ogy, as­tron­omy and ro­bot­ics, a big ques­tion looms: What ex­actly is life?

That ques­tion is bub­bling up from re­cent ad­vances in lab work.

In sub­ur­ban Wash­ing­ton this sum­mer, prom­i­nent sci­en­tists at the J. Craig Ven­ter In­sti­tute, who were key play­ers in map­ping the hu­man genome, switched DNA from one bac­terium into an­other, chang­ing its ge­netic iden­tity. That put the world on no­tice that man’s abil­ity to ma­nip­u­late life is danc­ing around the point of cre­ation.

Now Ven­ter is ask­ing for a pa­tent for a com­pletely new bac­te­ria that would be cre­ated by in­sert­ing genes into a hol­lowed-out cell of what once was a uri­nary tract bug. Ven­ter doesn’t view that as cre­at­ing life, just “ mod­i­fy­ing life to come up with new life forms.”

At least half a dozen other re­search teams around the world are go­ing farther, try­ing to cre­ate life out of chem­i­cals, mim­ick­ing the be­gin­nings of life on Earth. They’re some­where from three to 10 years from suc­cess, they fig­ure.

For them, and Ven­ter, new man-made life forms mean new en­ergy sources, en­vi­ron­men­tal clean-up mech­a­nisms and life-sav­ing medicines. For oth­ers, such a break­through would mean un­der­stand­ing how life be­gan on Earth by try­ing to re­cre­ate it.

“We’re all sort of think­ing that the next ori­gin of life will be in some­body’s lab,” said David Deamer, a Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Cruz, bio­chem­istry pro­fes­sor who is one of the lead­ing ex­perts try­ing to cre­ate life. But ask Deamer what life is, and he re­sponds by say­ing it’s best to de­scribe it, not de­fine it.

Broadly put, sci­en­tists like Deamer say life re­quires a cell with ge­netic ma­te­rial and the abil­ity to re­pro­duce, turn food into en­ergy and to evolve through nat­u­ral se­lec­tion. But it’s not that sim­ple for oth­ers seek­ing a def­i­ni­tion.

At NASA’s As­tro­bi­ol­ogy In­sti­tute in Cal­i­for­nia, which stud­ies ex­treme life here and the pos­si­bil­ity of it else­where, it’s far eas­ier to say what life isn’t, said in­sti­tute di­rec­tor Carl Pilcher.

“Right now we may not have the base of knowl­edge nec­es­sary to an­swer the ques­tion, but there are ways we are pro­ceed­ing,” he said.

Last month, the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences is­sued a “weird life” re­port cau­tion­ing NASA not to be so fo­cused on wa­ter. It told the space agency that “as the search for life in the so­lar sys­tem ex­pands, it is im­por­tant to know what ex­actly to search for.”

That same re­port urged NASA to avoid be­ing “fix­ated on car­bon” when it looks for life even though car­bon is of­ten called the back­bone of life on Earth.

But if car­bon isn’t a re­quire­ment for life, how about sil­i­con?

In other words, what about ma­chines?

Ray Kurzweil, a renowned fu­tur­ist who ad­vises peo­ple such as Bill Gates, be­lieves that by 2029 a ma­chine will pass a prime test of ar­ti­fi­cial intelligence, of­fer­ing the same kind of an­swers as a hu­man.

“The key is­sue as to whether or not a non- bi­o­log­i­cal en­tity de­serves rights re­ally comes down to whether or not it’s con­scious,” Kurzweil said. “Does it have feel­ings?”

This isn’t just a Kurzweil con­cept.

“A monumental shift could oc­cur if ro­bots con­tinue to be de­vel­oped to the point where they can at some point re­pro­duce, im­prove them­selves or if they gain ar­ti­fi­cial intelligence,” said a 2006 study com­mis­sioned by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s science of­fice. That re­port com­pared the sit­u­a­tion of ro­bots to the eman­ci­pa­tion of slaves.

Many sci­en­tists familiar with th­ese chal­lenges of defin­ing life say the an­swers won’t be easy to find.

“ It’s an im­por­tant but ul­ti­mately frus­trat­ing ques­tion if one ex­pects to come up with a nice clean shiny an­swer; it ain’t go­ing to hap­pen,” said Francis Collins, a prom­i­nent Chris­tian sci­en­tist and di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Hu­man Genome Re­search In­sti­tute.

That talk about life is go­ing to get un­com­fort­able as dreams of cre­ation, from Franken­stein’s mon­ster on, get closer to re­al­ity, said Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia bioethi­cist Art Caplan.

“ This is­sue of ‘ what is life’ has been at the core of bi­ol­ogy for about 400 years,” Caplan said. He said it leads to the more the­o­log­i­cal ques­tions about whether life is spe­cial and whether we are spe­cial.

Later this cen­tury, the def­i­ni­tion of life will be at the heart of a po­lit­i­cal and so­ci­etal de­bate as heated and di­vi­sive as abor­tion and em­bry­onic stem cell re­search, Caplan pre­dicts.

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