Researchers Just Got Closer to Creating Artificial Lifeform in the Laboratory

A controversial theory posits that life began when RNA spontaneously began to replicate itself — and now scientists are claiming they've replicated part of that process in the laboratory.

In interviews with WaPo, researchers say they've structured an RNA molecule that made clones of other types of RNA, which gets its experts ever closer to creating the conditions for early Earth life in a lab.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies researchers worked from the theory that before there was DNA or proteins, RNA existed as the initial ingredient in the so-called "primordial soup."

As part of their research, WaPo reports, they created a lab made RNA molecule that accurately copied others and resulted in a functioning enzyme. 

Now that the institute has done that, it's poised to scrutinise the initial evolutionary stages of life in unprecedented ways.

Gerald Joyce, the president of Salk institute who co authored a new paper about the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told WaPo that although the scientists' lab-made molecule isn't yet self-replicating, the one they did create is a huge step to creating life in the laboratory.

If RNA is created that is able to replicate itself, the Salk's president said, "then it would be alive."

"This is the road to how life can arise in a lab," Joyce said, "or, in principle, anywhere in the vast universe."

As Washington Post explains, RNA must make extremely close clones to the original for Darwinian evolution to occur. 

If anything goes wrong, things start to deteriorate fast, and like an old, wonky photocopy machine — or, in the meme world, a "deep fried" image that comes about from screenshotting ad infinitum — each subsequent copy gets fuzzier until it's unclear what the original source material was in the first place.

"If the error rate is too high, you can’t maintain the [genetic] information," the Salk president explained. "It just blows up."

That said, exact replication of RNA also doesn't work because it doesn't provide for the kinds of mutations that foster growth. 

To get just the right amount of deviation, Joyce and his colleagues made an RNA that makes copies of what's known as "hammerhead RNA," which chops molecules. 

When the replicator molecule does its thing on the hammerhead RNA, each new generation, as WaPo reports, was also able to chop — and each subsequent generation gets better at replicating, too.

This new threshold, as science professor John Chaput of the University of California at Irvine puts it, is "monumental."

"At first, I looked on it as a little bit jaw-dropping," Chaput, who was not involved in the study, told WaPo. "It’s super-neat."

It's amazing research — though, if Salk or its fellow travelers succeed in making artificial life in the laboratory, sure to raise new ethical questions about synthetic lifeforms.