Prospect of alien life in test tube lurches forward abruptly

by David Solomonoff

In July, the NY Times reported:

Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanity’s first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.

But it could soon happen right here on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.

At the time of the article the prospect of easily creating artificial life forms seemed possible, but difficult and distant. But on Monday, The University of Nottingham issued a press release describing a research project to “develop an in vivo biological cell-equivalent of a computer operating system … in such a way that a given group of cells could be seamlessly re-programmed to perform any function without needing to modifying its hardware.”

… a “re-programmable cell” could revolutionise synthetic biology and would pave the way for scientists to create completely new and useful forms of life using a relatively hassle-free approach.

Professor Natalio Krasnogor of the University’s School of Computer Science, who leads the Interdisciplinary Computing and Complex Systems Research Group, said: “We are looking at creating a cell’s equivalent to a computer operating system – an ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions.”

The game-changing technology could substantially accelerate Synthetic Biology research and development, which has been linked to myriad applications – from the creation of new sources of food and environmental solutions to a host of new medical breakthroughs such as drugs tailored to individual patients and the growth of new organs for transplant patients.

In essence, the idea is to create a general purpose system for creating artificial life-forms which could revolutionize synthetic biology the way the general purpose computer did for computing and 3-D printing promises to do for manufacturing.

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