Will artificial life soon be a reality?

Will artificial life soon be a reality?

Scientists have achieved a significant milestone: the creation of a self-replicating RNA molecule, marking a potential leap towards the unthinkable: artificial life. Here is everything we know about it.

At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, researchers have managed to recreate a crucial aspect of RNA's self-replication process—a molecule vital for genetic information transmission and, by extension, life itself. In an interview with the Washington Post, the team unveiled their groundbreaking achievement, sparking both optimism and ethical contemplation.

Gerald Joyce, President of the Salk Institute and co-author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hails their work as a remarkable fusion of technical prowess and scientific ingenuity.

While the synthesized molecule isn't yet fully self-replicating like its natural counterpart, it demonstrates the capacity to copy other RNA molecules—an unprecedented feat. Joyce postulates that if this RNA can replicate itself, it could be deemed "alive," a pivotal stride towards the genesis of artificial life. This development not only illuminates the potential for life's emergence in laboratory settings but also hints at cosmic possibilities, according to Joyce.

The researchers highlighted in Significance chapter of the research the following: "An RNA enzyme with RNA polymerase activity was used to replicate and evolve an RNA enzyme with RNA-cleavage activity. The fidelity of the polymerase is sufficient to maintain heritable information over the course of evolution, with a succession of variants of the RNA-cleaving RNA enzyme arising that have progressively increasing fitness. The RNA-catalyzed evolution of functional RNAs is thought to have been central to the early history of life on Earth and to the possibility of constructing RNA-based life in the laboratory."

However, the journey towards the creation of a living organism, even a single cell, remains arduous. Joyce elucidates that orchestrating the replication process is a delicate endeavor. Balancing fidelity and variability is paramount. Too precise a copy inhibits evolutionary adaptations envisioned by Darwin, while excessive imperfection jeopardizes genetic integrity.

To navigate these complexities, the team engineered a specialized RNA molecule tailored to replicate a specific type called "hammer RNA." This variant possesses molecular cutting capabilities, crucial for precision during replication and ensuring stability across successive copies.

This breakthrough not only provides a theoretical framework for understanding evolutionary enhancements in self-replication but also holds promise for future research endeavors. John Chaput, Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, lauds the advance as "monumental." If Dr. Frankenstein were real, he might have found much to admire in this achievement.