From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Artificial Life Likely in 3 to 10 Years
By SETH BORENSTEIN / 08.20.07
WASHINGTON – Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to
create life from scratch and they’re getting closer.
Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone
in the now little-known field of “wet artificial life.”
“It’s going to be a big deal and everybody’s going to know about it,”
said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice,
Italy, one of those in the race. “We’re talking about a technology
that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways – in fact, in
ways that are impossible to predict.”
That first cell of synthetic life – made from the basic chemicals in
DNA – may not seem like much to non-scientists. For one thing, you’ll
have to look in a microscope to see it.
“Creating protocells has the potential to shed new light on our place
in the universe,” Bedau said. “This will remove one of the few
fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role.”
And several scientists believe man-made life forms will one day offer
the potential for solving a variety of problems, from fighting
diseases to locking up greenhouse gases to eating toxic waste.
Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic
_ A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out,
allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.
_ A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling
it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.
_ A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as
food and then changes it into energy.
One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical
School, predicts that within the next six months, scientists will
report evidence that the first step – creating a cell membrane – is
“not a big problem.” Scientists are using fatty acids in that effort.
Szostak is also optimistic about the next step – getting nucleotides,
the building blocks of DNA, to form a working genetic system.
His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add
nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could
simply take over.
“We aren’t smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the
hard work and then we figure out what happened,” Szostak said.
In Gainesville, Fla., Steve Benner, a biological chemist at the
Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution is attacking that problem
by going outside of natural genetics. Normal DNA consists of four
bases – adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (known as A,C,G,T) –
molecules that spell out the genetic code in pairs. Benner is trying
to add eight new bases to the genetic alphabet.
Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could
“run amok,” but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very
long time before that is a problem.
“When these things are created, they’re going to be so weak, it’ll be
a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab,”
he said. “But them getting out and taking over, never in our
imagination could this happen.”
(This version CORRECTS Bedau quote to “shed new light”)
ProtoLife is developing automated, high-throughput methods for
designing complex chemical systems. We have developed proprietary
statistical learning and automated design technology that optimize the
benefit from each experiment in a high-throughput scan.
Co-founder Norman Packard has had proven success managing innovation
of statistical modeling and machine learning techniques at Prediction
Company, where these methods were applied to financial markets. At
ProtoLife, he now brings his management and scientific expertise to
bear in the field of complex chemical system design.
ProtoLife methodologies may be used for discovery of new materials as
well as new chemical reactions. We go beyond simple screening, to an
intelligent, efficient, automated exploration of high-dimensional
reaction spaces. Our current focus is on soft matter chemistry and
self-assembly processes, including optimizing functional properties of
structures such as liposomes, vesicles, and micro-bubbles.
Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution (PACE)
ProtoLife is a participant in PACE, an integrated project funded by
the European Commission under the EU 6th Framework Program (FP6). PACE
comprises a consortium of 14 European and USA universities and
businesses that have joined together to pursue basic research related
to development of artificial cells, and to set the foundations for a
new generation of information technology based on using evolutionary
methods to program chemical functionality.
European Center for Living Technology (ECLT)
ProtoLife is a founding member of the European Center for Living
Technology in Venice, Italy, participating in multidisciplinary
projects involving the study and development of living technology,
i.e., technology that possesses important properties of living
ProtoLife is not seeking investment at this time. Please contact the
company for information regarding future investment possibilities.
ProtoLife is located at:
c/o Parco Vega
Via della Libertà 12
30175 Marghera, Venezia
Telephone: +39 041 509 3438
Fax: +39 041 509 3709
General information: info [at] protolife [dot] net
Mark Bedau, Ph.D.
Mark BedauMark Bedau is co-founder and COO of ProtoLife. He is an
internationally recognized leader in the study of complex adaptive
systems. At ProtoLife he is applying over 15 years of pioneering
research in the creative power of evolving systems. He is also leading
the development of socially and ethically responsible practices for
creating life-like systems. Dr. Bedau has been Professor of Philosophy
and Humanities at Reed College since 1991, and has been Editor-in-
Chief of the Artificial Life journal since 2000. He holds a Ph.D. in
Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley (1985).
Norman Packard, Ph.D.
Norman Packard Norman Packard is cofounder and CEO of ProtoLife. He
has over two decades of experience in chaos theory, learning
algorithms, predictive modeling of complex systems, statistical
analysis of evolution, artificial life and complex adaptive systems.
Dr. Packard has had proven success applying this experience in the
business sector. Before founding ProtoLife in 2004, he spent 13 years
at Prediction Company, which he co-founded in 1991. There, he
assembled a team of world-class scientists and engineers to use
learning algoritms and statistical modeling for predicting financial
markets. Prediction Company had a long-standing exclusive relationship
with Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), the world’s 3rd largest
financial institution, for the implementation of a trading system
based on proprietary predictive models and algorithms; UBS acquired
Prediction Company in 2005. Dr. Packard managed this strategic
relationship from a seed investment through to joint development. He
served as CEO from 1997 to 2003, before leaving his management
position to become chairman of the board of directors for the company.
Prior to his move from academia to business in 1991, Dr. Packard was
associate professor of Physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-
Champaign. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of
California at Santa Cruz (1983). He also has a long-standing
involvement with the Santa Fe Institute, currently serving on its