Playing God: The Making of Artificial Life

Playing God: The Making of Artificial Life

By David H. Freedman|Saturday, August 01, 1992
RELATED TAGS: GENES & HEALTH
There are Frankensteins among us, researchers who are actually figuring out how to build living things. They’re not building robots, mere machines that might someday convince us they’re alive. They’re not simply toying with autonomous computer programs that mimic the lives and evolution of living creatures. Instead these latter-day creators are trying to build honest-to-god protoplasm from organic chemicals, molecule by molecule and cell by cell.

This past winter DISCOVER sent contributing editor David Freedman around the world to visit three of these seemingly hubristic researchers in their labs. He went first to New Mexico, where Steen Rasmussen, a physicist by day, moonlights at creating the Metabolism--a batch of primitive DNA that pulls itself together in a test tube, then keeps itself intact by feeding and rebuilding its decaying matter. Next Freedman went to Boston, where biochemist Jack Szostak aims to reinvent the cell by placing custom- made strands of self-replicating molecules within a synthetic membrane. Finally he went to Japan, where Masuo Aizawa is growing colonies of nerve cells that will one day, he hopes, solve specific problems; in other words, he is designing living brains.

These researchers are on their way to milestones that once looked hopelessly remote. That, of course, raises a perplexing question. What if humans become capable of slapping together new forms of life as easily as a kid makes toys out of Legos? What if real brains can be assembled to do a given job? What will we do with that kind of power? The day when we’ll have to decide is creeping inevitably closer.
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