Cells from Scratch?

A recent article from Nature chronicled the efforts by scientists to create a self-replicating artificial cell.  While this is a very interesting project and carries potential medical implications, it also raises some significant ethical questions. Providing a balance between the ethical implications and the needs of research will likely be a delicate balance moving forward. This article will discuss the ongoing research, while also looking at the potential ethical implications of creating living cells from scratch.

Creating a synthetic cell has a tantalizing appeal. Being able to have a synthetic cell to research with removes the need for the intense cellular culture that is often required for biological research. However, most research on synthetic cells has nothing to do with getting rid of cell culturing. It is entirely an attempt to determine the mystery of life.  One researcher in the article was quoted as saying “I have always been fascinated by this question, ‘What distinguishes life from non-living matter?’” In essence, these researchers are attempting two things: what makes a blob of random chemicals alive, and how the internal workings of the cell function.

Understanding the internal workings of the cell is a noble and very valid goal.  Knowing what makes the cell tick is critical for medicine. Being able to treat a disease on the cellular level, for example, could unlock numerous potential cures. Understanding the cell also carries potential research benefits. It may be possible to mimic some of the functions of the cell and use them for other purposes. Building synthetic cells for this purpose is a fantastic idea.

Using specialized microtechnology, researchers are able to create cells that are remarkably similar to what we know about the living cell. However, the living cell is an incredibly complicated, complex structure, with millions of tiny parts. Organizing a synthetic cell requires incredibly careful planning and balancing. It’s almost as if the original living cell was designed by a perfect Designer.

Researchers have successfully constructed cell sized structures, called liposomes, and even put some things inside. Using these liposomes, they’ve performed some experiments, including forcing external cell division.  One research group has even put synthetic mitochondria inside its liposome to produce energy for its synthetic cell. However, the cell does a lot more than produce ATP. Being able to produce cellular energy is great, but being able to use the produced energy is crucial as well.  Further, the synthetic mitochondria were preloaded with the enzyme ATP synthase, which makes ATP. A truly synthetic cell would need a way to make ATP synthase and a mechanism to direct it to the mitochondria.

This is also ignoring the problem posed by DNA.  Having the correct information controlling the cell is key to keeping it alive. Yet artificial DNA has yet to be created. Some researchers have attempted to get around this by infusing their liposomes with fungal DNA, but even this has so far failed. Creating a synthetic cell is no simple task.

Hopefully, you’re starting to recognize the enormity of the problem facing these researchers. In my series on the cell, I demonstrated just how complex the cell is and why it could not have evolved. I’m not going to go through all of the requirements for a living cell here, but check out my cell series for more information. Suffice to say that these researchers are a long way from producing a synthetic cell.  All they have succeeded in producing so far is a tiny blob of incompatible chemicals.

Even if the researchers do succeed in producing an artificial cell, some of them acknowledge it will not be as good as the real thing. “I’m convinced our first synthetic cell will be a lousy mimic of what already exists.” one of the researchers was quoted as saying. I suspect she’s right, but, for reasons explained below, I suspect there never will be a synthetic cell.

The researchers are aware, in part, of the ethical and philosophical questions raised by their work.  If they create life, for example, is it right to then experiment on it? What is life anyway? These are questions these researchers are pondering as they work. However, I don’t think they need to worry. I suspect they will never be able to create a synthetic cell without using a pre-existing cell. My thinking comes from the hitherto unbroken law of biology, the Law of Biogenesis.  The law of biogenesis states that life comes only from pre-existing life. Building a living, synthetic cell from scratch would seem to violate that law.

However, beyond even that, there is a special quality of life that makes me even more certain that these researchers will fail. Life is a miracle.  I’ve written about this before, but life is something different. Every breath we take begs the question why? No human being is capable of miracles without invoking a supernatural power, either of God as the apostles and prophets did or the devil as some of the false prophets in the Old Testament did.  This is why the attempt to synthesize life must end in failure. Life is more than just biology. It takes more than an interaction of chemicals to make life. Of course, these researchers being evolutionists, they expect to be able to synthesize life from nonlife if they get the right recipe.  Attempting to create an artificial cell is a reformulation of the old Miller-Urey experiment that attempted to make life in a test tube and failed spectacularly.  I strongly suspect the search for a truly synthetic cell, using only non-living materials, will end as a multi-million tax dollar flop.






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