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The quest to create artificial life

You've no doubt read about a team of scientists' achievement in creating the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell.

Thousands of articles and blog posts have been written about the 15-year, multi-million dollar bioengineering development and the potential benefits and risks of one day being able to create useful microbes from scratch. But most of the media coverage focuses on the singular achievement of genome pioneer J. Craig Venter, PhD, and his team and neglects to mention that other biologists are hot on Venter's heels.

An article in the Economist highlights ongoing experiments on artificial lifeforms at Harvard and Stanford. In describing the work at Stanford, the author writes:

Another avowedly practical approach is that taken by Drew Endy, a researcher at Stanford University. Dr Endy wants to make the way that cells process genetic information more like the way that familiar computers do. Just as computers are built from electronic components that (at least in the days before integrated circuits and silicon chips) could be ordered from a catalogue by engineers and enthusiasts alike, so Dr Endy is trying to build up a catalogue of components he calls biobricks that, when linked together, will form useful biological “circuits”. Synthetic biologists will be able to order stretches of DNA that encode biobricks and link them together to do their bidding.

Dr Endy’s approach is intriguing. His plan to “reimplement” life shows an engineer’s desire to replace biology’s unruly heritage-kludge built on kludge for billions of years-with something designed to be fit for a physicist’s practical purpose. Whether it will work remains to be seen. But a less thoroughgoing approach to modular design underlies the next stage of Dr Venter’s plans, too.

Previously: Venter's "synthetic life" is a different disc in an old player (but it's still music)

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