How to Build a Living Thing

A number of research groups worldwide are working on various aspects of the problem of building life from scratch. Jack W. Szostak’s lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts is one of the centers of the action. Open a recent news article on some discovery related to synthetic life or life’s origins on Earth, and he’s likely to be quoted. Szostak fills his lab with ambitious, bright, young people, a few of whom have gone on to found their own labs. His work provides a lens through which to view the contemporary state of progress toward the ancient and ambitious goal to take what was not alive before and make it live. Starting from an initial plan to make a self-assembling, self-replicating membrane containing a self-replicating genetic molecule, the lab has had some striking successes and, off course, some setbacks. Recent breakthroughs suggest that the realization of a wholly human-designed and created life form looms in the foreseeable future.

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