This week in Pacific Standard I try to answer the question, why can’t we build life from scratch?
There are two primary ways biologists are trying to build life from scratch – evolution and intelligent design. People like Harvard’s Jack Szostak are trying to understand prebiotic evolution, by evolving autonomously replicating protocells in the lab. On the other hand, synthetic biologists, like those at the Venter Institute, want to be able to go to the whiteboard and intelligently design a genome from scratch. They already know how to synthesize and transplant a genome; designing it is another matter. As I wrote for Pacific Standard, we’re “like someone who knows how to work a 3-D printer but can’t design new digital templates for it.”
Will we ever solve this problem? I think the answer partly depends on whether life is just details, or whether there are some fundamental and precise principles that allow us to coarse grain our understanding in a way that lets us get past the details. To evolve life in the lab, does it require just hitting that sweet spot, that rare combination of chemical conditions we can only discover by trial and error, or are there principles? When we design a genome from scratch, is it all simply about the specificities, concentrations, and affinities of 100,000 different molecular species, or are there genuine design principles?
Currently, I’m a pessimist – I expect we’ll design life from scratch one day, but the solution will not be elegant; it will be done with brute force.