Monday, August 20, 2007

Artificial life likely in 3 to 10 years

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This undated photo shows vesicles, artificial membranes for cells, made from scratch. Teams around the world, including ProtoLife, are trying to create synthetic life from scratch, and they're getting closer. The first step many of them are working on is making a container for the life form such as these vesicles. The large cell container (with little ones inside of it), shown in computer-created coloring, is about the thickness of a human hair.

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.

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