Artificial Life

  • Posted 10.18.05
  • NOVA scienceNOW

(This video is no longer available for streaming.) Correspondent Robert Krulwich explores the controversial scientific frontier of artificial life: creating new forms of life from scratch. In labs all over the world, serious scientists are venturing where only science fiction films have gone before—reinventing life itself. The report examines different approaches: simplifying existing life, trying to recreate the origins of life on Earth, and devising new recipes unrelated to life as we know it.

Running Time: 14:50


Artificial Life

PBS Airdate: October 18, 2005

ROBERT KRULWICH: After all, what are living things made of? We are made of chemicals: carbon, hydrogen—simple chemicals, you could by them at a store. But you put these chemicals together in just the right way and you get a breathing, living being.

Life is not an unfathomable mystery. Scientists say this is a piece of chemical engineering. This is a beautiful chemical machine. Now, one day, they say, we're going to build a creature from scratch—simpler than this. But the surprise is that that day may be getting much, much closer.

You know those Hollywood movies? The ones where scientists do improbable things? They mess with life, then they get a little confident...

FRANKENSTEIN (Movie): Now I know what it's like to be God!

FRANKENSTEIN'S FRIEND (Movie): You're crazy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But what if I told you that there are dozens of scientists, right now, trying to do something much like that? I mean, they're not stealing dead organs in the dark of night or constructing a seven foot creature with bolts in its neck, but starting with dry, dead dust, they're working on tiny life forms, racing for the big prize. They want to be the first to turn non-life into self-sustaining, living creatures.

DAVID DEAMER: We're going to have laboratory life. This is really knocking on the door.

ROBERT KRULWICH: As best we can tell, there hasn't been a completely new life form for the last three and a half billion years, not since the first act of creation. But you are about to meet scientists who say we can do it again.

STEEN RASMUSSEN (Los Alamos National Laboratory): The steps we have to take are getting smaller and smaller.

MARK BEDAU (Reed College): It's doable and it's relatively cheap.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And what's most amazing, and in some ways a little frightening, is that some of them say it's not going to be that hard.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Compared to, you know, making the bomb or sending people to the moon, I think it's significantly easier.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Easier to create life from scratch than making a bomb?

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Yeah, easier, significantly easier. Yeah.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Why easier? Because, say the scientists who do this, life has a rough formula, and we know the formula.

So this is your place?

JEREMY MINSHULL (President, DNA 2.0): This is it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: What's it called?

JEREMY MINSHULL: This is DNA 2.0. We make DNA.



ROBERT KRULWICH: The same DNA that builds living creatures?

JEREMY MINSHULL: Exactly, yes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Exactly? Do you mean exactly?

JEREMY MINSHULL: I mean exactly.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if you wanted to order some DNA for say an experiment, a company like Jeremy Minshull's could custom make it for you, in other words, kind of like DNA to go. DNA being, of course, the recipe for living creatures, built from chemical ingredients abbreviated A, C, T and G.

So if I'm a creature—let's suppose I'm a very small creature—I'm not going to be anything immodest like a cat or a mouse, but I'm just a little, itty bitty thing, and you can spell me CCCTTTGGG. Do you have all those chemicals here?

JEREMY MINSHULL: Absolutely. And we can make you.

ROBERT KRULWICH: A bold statement.

So, he doesn't mean that literally, but right away I could tell that Jeremy and I don't look at life the same way. When I look at, let's say jellyfish, I see a weird, pulsing, hairy creature. When he looks at the same thing—at least during business hours—he sees a blueprint, a chemical formula.

JEREMY MINSHULL: Those letters carry all the information that makes us.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And while we've known for a while how to read DNA recipes, even cut and splice—genetic engineering—now, at companies like Jeremy's, they can write recipes, create genes from scratch that never existed.

So, if I call you up on the phone and say, "Can you make me something that would, in a living creature, make it glow green?" You'd know what I need?

JEREMY MINSHULL: Exactly. We would know. We would know just what you need.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This, for example, is a bottle of T, standing for Thymine.

JEREMY MINSHULL: Can I have your hand? Please?

ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is what it looks like. Here we go. It's just powder.

JEREMY MINSHULL: It's just powder.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Is this in any way alive?

JEREMY MINSHULL: This is in no way alive.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, this is just dust?



So Jeremy mixes this dust with some liquid chemicals—still not alive—and hooks them all up to this machine. So now it's a solution in all these things.

It's got the As, Cs and Ts in bottles, tucked in here. And you just type in whatever recipe you want and the machine pumps out the letters of life. So, it'll go "C and C and C and T and T and T."

JEREMY MINSHULL: That's right.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The machine makes dozens of strands of letters, and then some other machines mix them all together, and, automatically, they self-assemble.

JEREMY MINSHULL: They self-organize.

ROBERT KRULWICH: In the right order?

JEREMY MINSHULL: In the right order.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Jeremy plugs the completed gene into bacteria, and—look at this—the bacteria glow.

JEREMY MINSHUL: Our instructions were followed, and it's making green glow.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So for about 900 bucks, starting, literally, with chemical dust, we have just made, not quite life, but a gene, a gene that never existed before.

Then will you mail me the genes?

JEREMY MINSHULL: That's exactly what we'll do.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Woooshhh. All this is just going around through the mail all the time?

JEREMY MINSHULL: That's right.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It's funny. You say...this is all new to me...and if it's that easy to construct individual genes from scratch, some of these folks say, well, "Why stop there? Why not build all the genes to make up a creature?" And amazingly, a couple of years ago, scientists created the DNA for a whole virus.

They copied the DNA recipe, then got it through the membrane of the cell, and the cell manufactured a burst of new viruses, just like happens in real life. So would this count as life?

FRANCIS COLLINS (National Human Genome Research Institute): No, it would not.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Sorry," says biologist Francis Collins.

FRANCIS COLLINS: 'Cause remember, what you're making in this machine is not life; you're making DNA. And DNA is just the instruction book. But an instruction book doesn't actually build anything.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Ah, so it's the living cell that does the real work here. DNA by itself does not create life.

FRANCIS COLLINS: So I would say that was not life.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, then, what is life? What exactly do you need? Well one basic definition says that life requires a bunch of things: a container, something to live in; the ability to use energy, to grow or change; the ability to reproduce, to create creatures that look like yourself; and for some, the ability to evolve.

But making a creature from scratch that meets all four requirements is much, much harder than making a gene. In fact, no one has been able to do it.

But now, scientists all over the world are working on different parts of this puzzle. One of them is Dave Deamer who's looking for clues in the distant past.

Today, his quest brings him to the remote mountains of northern California, to a very strange place.

DAVID DEAMER: This is Bumpass Hell - we are in hell!

ROBERT KRULWICH: And Bumpass Hell is on Mount Lassen, an active volcano.

DAVID DEAMER: This is one of the few places on the Earth that we think resembles what the pre-biotic Earth was like: hot, boiling water, mud, clay...

ROBERT KRULWICH: This is the kind of place, Dave thinks, where life might have emerged the first time around. The question is, "How did that happen?"

DAVID DEAMER: One of the great remaining questions of science...nobody yet knows how life began.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Our best guess is that life at the beginning—and we're talking three and half billion years ago—must have been made of ingredients that were either lying around on the early Earth or brought in from space on meteorites or comets. And the first life must have been very simple, just a little bubble-like container with a little bit of chemistry going on inside.

That's one of Dave's hopes today, that he can use the environment of this pond to get some primitive chemical changes going. The powder he's got here contains some basic building blocks that could have existed back then.

DAVID DEAMER: We're going to get some of this hot water into this little mixture of organic chemicals. These are biochemicals.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Then he spikes the pool with these basic ingredients, takes a sample of the has he created life?

DAVID DEAMER: Nothing popped out yet that's wiggling. Ha, ha, ha.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, he didn't expect that, but he is hoping that the chemicals in this pond will be able to build life requirement Number 1, a container. Because Dave has already found that tiny containers, kind of like primitive cell membranes, can form on their own. He did it in a lab from chemicals he found on this rock, the famous Murchison meteorite.

DAVID DEAMER: There's nothing alive in a meteorite, and yet the components, the organic components of the meteorite have the property of self-assembly into these microscopic bubble-like structures.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And they did it?

DAVID DEAMER: And they did it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So they can make mini-containers from scratch.

Then in Switzerland, they got those containers to grow; at Harvard, they got them to divide; and RPI in New York got different chemicals to assemble into a gene-like shape; and at MIT, they got a primitive gene to start to copy itself.

DAVID DEAMER: We know how to make things grow. We know how to make things reproduce. We know how to make things evolve, in a sense, so we can do all those things.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And since they can do all this stuff, they say soon they can put it all together and build an entire living thing—microscopic, yeah, but alive.

MARK BEDAU: We feel like we are on the verge of making a huge, new discovery.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: This is coming. There's no's a tidal wave we can see in the distance, and it's going to come. It's going to hit us. There's no discussion about that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: No discussion? But what about the people who believe that life requires something more than just chemistry? What would you say to the person who said, "No, you need a kiss from God or a bit of lightning or something mysterious and magical to go from one state to the other?"

STEEN RASMUSSEN: If I want to talk about this poetically, I think it is a little bit magic. But all...doesn't matter what you look at in your life, there is magic in that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But still, when Steen Rasmussen and all the scientists we talked to look at life up close—right into a cell—life is not a poem.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Life is a machine.

MARK BEDAU: It's essentially a collection of molecules. There's nothing else that's there.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: It is a molecular machine that does certain things.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if you buy into the notion that life is chemistry, rules and structure—if life is a machine—then we can build it.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: These guys, they organize themselves all by themselves.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Steen's idea for building life is perhaps the most radical of all, because it is so extraordinarily simple.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: What we're trying to do is the absolutely minimal form of life you can imagine. It's a million times smaller than the simplest, lousiest little organism we know today. So, all the greasy stuff will sort of...

ROBERT KRULWICH: The creature Steen has designed, and is now trying to build, has no cell membrane, just an oily blob—no DNA, instead of DNA, a manmade chemical not found in nature.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: And our proto-organism grows. It swells up as it eats all the food.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But can you build something so alien from life as we know it?

STEEN RASMUSSEN: Do I believe that you can make life that is different from life as we know it? Oh, absolutely. I do believe that.

We need this guy to digest his food.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If Steen can get his newfangled creature, this homemade alien, to meet life's requirements...

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON (American Museum of Natural History): If someone creates an alien on Earth, if you can do that, there' you're talking. Now, I'm going to say, "I want to bring you on my spaceship, 'cause I want you to help me find life elsewhere in the cosmos."

ROBERT KRULWICH: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says we've got no idea if life is even possible without the usual ingredients. But if Steen engineers a completely different life form...

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Then, all of a sudden, your cosmic kitchen becomes this place where you are testing the limits of what life is and what it isn't.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if life can be different than it is on Earth, think of the possibilities: life, say, with no water; life in a cloud, say the clouds of Jupiter; or any life that we are able to build.

STEEN RASMUSSEN: This is a potentially very, very, very powerful technology. If we understand, if we get the key to life, if we understand and control the creative forces of nature, that's a big deal.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But if and when we begin to make life, the question is, can we control it? I mean, in so many movies, when they make life, the experiment gets away from them.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: My experiment will get away from me because in the movie, it got away from them? That's not evidence. But in all fairness to the question, there's no doubt that every advance of human understanding of the universe, of technology, of our power over nature, there's always sort of the other side of that sword, because it's a sword of power.

Taking that literally, do we say to folks who are coming out of the Stone Age into the Bronze Age, "Don't make the sword, because you can hurt yourself with the sword. You could cut your finger and that would be bad. Don't make the sword." But they say, "Oh, but I can use the sword to get food, and I can cut things, and I can build." If everyone throughout the history of human culture listened to the person in the robe who said "Don't go there; it is not meant for you," we would still be living in the cave.


Artificial Life

PBS Airdate: October 18, 2005

Edited by
Doug Quade
Written, Produced and Directed by
Julia Cort

NOVA scienceNOW Credits

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Special Thanks
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