This question, of course, has to be addressed, if you want to create life from scratch. At our FLinT center in Denmark we study and implement life-like and minimal living processes in a variety of materials and systems. In particular we seek to assemble a minimal protocell, a minimal physicochemically based cell.
First a little history:
Von Neumann, the inventor of the modern computer, realized that if life is a physical process, it should be possible to implement life in other media than biochemistry. He was one of the first to propose the possibility of implementing genuine living processes in computers, robots and other media. This perspective, while still controversial, is rapidly gaining momentum in many science and engineering communities and it is the basis for our work. Ilya Prigogine reemphasized and clarified the importance of utilizing free energy fluxes to generate order in physicochemical systems through self-organization. The metabolic processes in our protocells utilize free energy to maintain local order. Our metabolism is a thermodynamic engine that locally drives our system away from equilibrium. Manfred Eigen pointed out that autocatalysis between functional physicochemical components could be a mechanism for the emergence of early life and that autocatalysis can enhance a systems ability to maintain information. All our protocellular components are autocatalytically coupled.
Now, what is minimal physicochemical life then?
There is not a generally agreed upon definition of life within the scientific community, as there is a grey zone of interesting processes between nonliving and living matter. Our work on assembling minimal physicochemical life is based on implementing systems that meet three criteria, which most modern biological life forms satisfy.
In my opinion, and from a practical point of view, a minimal living physicochemical system needs to:
- use free energy to convert resources from the environment into building blocks so that it can grow and reproduce,
- have the growth and division processes at least partly controlled by inheritable information, and
- allow the inheritable information to change slightly from one generation to the next, thereby permitting variation of the growth and division processes and thus allow selection and hence evolution.
How difficult can that be? Implementing these three simple criteria?
Well, I’m telling you, it’s not easy. It’s very complicated, as it takes many components to fall into place at the same time, and these components are not only of scientific nature.
For me personally, it took many years to convince any funding agency (peer review committee), that this kind of work is even possible. Secondly, we had to convince the committees that this work is worthy to spent tax payers money on: “In which sense will assembling minimal life benefit society?” Very important question, which I’ll get back to in some later blog. Only very few funding agencies give you money for basic, or curiosity driven, science.
I’ll say, getting continued funding for our activities is still, and has been, the hardest part of creating life. It’s certainly more complex than doing the science.
Secondly, due to the necessary complexities of the involved physicochemical systems, this kind of science is not a one-man activity. It takes a small village of skilled scientists from different disciplines, which gets us back to the previous point about money, as well as being able to host an exciting research environment.
Finally, and of course most importantly, it takes human wondering and amazement about why things are the way they are, as well as the courage to dream about how things could be. And it takes very good people. Good people that can come up with the right ideas, that can test them, and most importantly, find new ways when the original ideas do not work, which they usually don’t. Without good people nothing moves. And then it takes tenacity. A dedicated team effort day after day (and sometimes nights), month after month, year after year.
So don’t become a scientist unless you can’t help it. It consumes too much of you. But if you can’t help it, playing with your imagination and dreaming up new stuff, I believe is one of the most exhilarating things you can do as a human being. However, fundraising, grant writing, doing budgets, paying bills, dealing with whatever organization you are a part of, managing very smart people (herding cats), teaching, correcting exams, etc., can be exhausting and can take some of the fun out of it. But that’s how it is. There are is no free lunch.
We started with minimal life and ended up with life as a working scientist? I guess it’s Friday and time to take a break.
Next week it’s the European Artificial Life Conference (ECAL) 2011 in Paris.