Creating Life: The Frankenstein of today

The scientific briefing with Luke Boulter

With a flash of lightening and a groan from the lab bench ‘the monster’ was born. Constructed from a cocktail of reclaimed body parts, Frankenstein’s creature roams the village, kidnapping maidens and eventually is chased up to a windmill, which is subsequently burnt to the ground by a hoard of pitchfork-wielding villagers. Not all together that inspiring then for Steen Rasmussen, who since early last year has worked obsessively to do what scientists and the eccentrics amongst us have dreamt of for years… create life.

Don’t, however, place your order for a creature of your own just yet. At the moment what you will receive in the post will be nothing more than a beaker with what looks like a few contently floating blobs of oil and even these won’t be as interesting as you’d have hoped. The plan is to create a being from scratch – A small organism; one tenth the diameter of a normal human hair which will autonomously grow and replicate. Its name: the Protocell.

So why has the Los Alamos National Laboratory just put up five million dollars for research into something that many scientists believe to be a little too sci-fi to be true? Well, initially (considering Rasmussen is successful) we will be able to see what we looked like four billion years ago. We’ll have some understanding of how our ancestors formed from nothing more than a collection of gasses, which due to a random spark began to react and form amino acids – the basic building blocks of life. Success in this project would offer all manner of answers: Why did we form as we did? How did we form these stray molecules? Whatever the outcome, according to Peter Nielson, a biochemist from Copenhagen and partner in the Protocell project, the key answer that will arise from this research is “was life an accident or inevitable?” In either case this will have profound implications on how we consider ourselves in the universe.

The research however does not merely offer a quasi-profound notion of existence, there are practical applications to what Rasmussen and his team are doing. Once the basics have been mastered, the thought of home made multicellular organisms isn’t too big a jump. We need only look at the decade or so to see exactly how genetic engineering has moulded our production of crops and medicines. Steven Benner, a biophysicist from the University of Florida, envisages new organisms that can “offer qualities outside the realm of whatever nature can conceivably provide”. Who knows, a few years down the line there may be a little creature scampering around the lake clearing up after the geese!

So what are the bare essentials required for the production of these little creatures? Well, basically exactly the same as ours. They will require principally three things: a metabolism to generate energy, some genetic material to be passed on to the offspring of the protocell, and a sac to hold the other two components and divide into new cells.

There you have it, simple! Well not really, the problems arise really when you try to make this happen, especially when the components aren’t meant to go together. One way to get around this is the ‘top-down’ method; take the simplest unicellular organism you can find, and then prune its genome, gene by gene until removing any one of the remaining genes will kill the organism. The result: the basic components for life. That’s the simple part, now all you are required to do is synthetically reconstruct this stripped down genome and reinsert it into the cell. One catch remains, however, the cell has to live once the transplant has taken place!
The second method it to deny nature completely, and go ‘bottom-up’ – Rasmussen’s protocell will be made using this method. He’ll make the sac for the genetic material by using a molecule – one end loves water, and the other end hates it. So what do the molecules do? They form a ball with the water-loving parts on the outside (known as a Micelle). Next, in true entrepreneur style, he will add the genome – DNA and RNA won’t do though, they’re a little too natural, so instead Rasmussen will use PNA (Peptide Nucleic Acid). The PNA has two main parts; the bases, similar to those in DNA allow replication and the transmission of genetic material from parent to child.

The second section however is completely different to the sugar phosphate backbone in DNA; it is made of molecules called peptides which are normally associated with proteins. The peptide backbone is conductive, so when coupled with a light sensitive molecule an electron will shoot through the peptide spine of the genetic material like electricity through a wire and metabolism is kicked off. In the presence of food the cell will grow and parts can replicate until the whole thing becomes unstable, and splits into two cells. – Or at least that’s the idea.

So what does it all mean? Well in the long term Rasmussen envisions self-healing planes and self-cleaning surfaces where a layer of his creation feeds of your mess. Now, however, the possibilities are a little less radical. Getting it to work seems to be the priority.

One thing can be said though, don’t look to the sky for alien life; look in the bottom of a test tube somewhere in Los Alamos, Mexico.

(Luke Boulter)

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