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pending
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Constructed Life

Many wonders. Tech wonders. Wonders about the outcome.

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6280/aad6253
https://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/coyotes-doing-well-in-the-city-asteroid-impact-created-rainforests-the-minimal-organism-and-more-1.5980412/scientists-create-the-simplest-cell-with-only-bare-essentials-for-life-and-reproduction-1.5980420

I could see this coming :-)
Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute have constructed living cells from raw chemicals.
That is, they made amino acids that were assembled into genes and then assembled those into a genome in a cell that will replicate and grow. That genome has 480 genes. There is a simpler one with 473 genes that will produce a cell that lives and grows but doesn't replicate well.

I could see it coming but this is astounding on many levels. The idea of being able to construct a living cell from raw chemicals makes me blink. The ability to design a genome and then build it and test it makes me blink. Even the ability to photograph the resulting cells makes me blink (but that capacity has been around for decades. These cells provide a kind of experimental test bed for exploring how genes interact.

The two links at the start of this intro go into more technical detail if you are interested. The first is quite technical and the second is a more approachable CBC article.

There are a bunch of interesting philosophic points about this. There is a safety issue: Being able to build life from scratch was for a long time seen to be a power of the gods.
But gods could also see the future and we can't - and it's easy to imagine horrors emerging from this tech.
But it's easy to imagine huge benefits emerging too. And this is not exactly a new situation. We face it every time a new technology comes along.

Are these cells 'really' alive or are we looking at some kind of artificial life? We might take the ability to autonomously replicate to be the mark of life. It's said that a virus isn't alive because it can't replicate on its own; it needs to use other cells to replicate. And it's true that the construction of these genomes takes place within yeast (!!!! at that) and then that genome is 'transposed' to another cell.
I think that means that they take a cell, flush it's genome out, and then replace that with the constructed genome. From then on the cell replicates on its own. The articles duck than real/artificial distinction by substituting a wild/constructed distinction.

No wild genotype is as small as the constructed one; the smallest is 3 or 4 times larger. To arrive at the smallest genotype the researchers identified and deleted genes from an existing wild genotype. This new research doesn't touch directly on the question of the origin of life. It's like if you want a minimum car: start with an existing car and then remove everything that's not needed for it to work. (Think dune buggy). That doesn't tell us how or why the motor was invented.

Second Life has provided a platform for playing with artificial life. In this context that means that you can create things that grow and replicate in a simulated space. But we may not be far from a time when we have things that replicate and grow but are based on silicon rather than carbon. Even now lots of our machines are constructed by manipulating stuff on a molecular level. And they work because of stuff that happens at a molecular level. They are not like cars that you can strip down to being a dune buggy. At that point I'd say we need to start just being used to adding a modifier to the term life. Rather than saying 'real life' or 'not real life' it might be better to say carbon based life, or silicon based life (maybe carblife and sililife) or even constructed life (concarblife)

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.