The earliest conception of life was of the divine spark, transmuting inanimate matter. Whether this was an ongoing process of spontaneous generation, or a “first cause”, was emphatically addressed, as all high school biology students know, by Louis Pasteur, and by others with successive refinement.
But very early on, the muscle contractions of frog legs caused by electricity generated by early batteries, coined “Galvanism” after the inventor of an early battery, popularized the notion that the electric spark could replace the Divine (Napoleon was an early adherent.) The temptation to play God attracted hoards of fiction writers, and finally, chemist Stanley Miller, in collaboration with Nobel prize winner Harold Urey. With an electric spark through a cloud of ammonia, mimicking the conditions of primordial earth, the Miller-Urey Experiment synthesized organic compounds that are primary constituents of life. Sidney W. Fox and Kaoru Harada elaborated this with additional steps that produced proteinoid microspheres, primitive globules which are temptingly deemed protocells, that could reproduce a generation or two before dissolution, and which demonstrated some elements of metabolism. Quoting,
Microspheres have multiple properties that are similar to those of cells. The microspheres produced were mostly uniformly spherical and Fox believed that the shape and uniformity mimics that of coccoid bacteria. He also believed that the uniformity meant that there was a sophisticated system that kept the microspheres at equilibrium. The microspheres were able to asexually divide via binary fission, could form junctions with other microspheres, and developed a double membrane corresponding to that of a cell.
But the experiment’s creation shared, poetically speaking, the fictional myth of the nonviability of the spawn of those who play around with forbidden things.
When artificial life was finally created by the lab, in the form of Mycoplasma laboratorium, it was noted with little more fanfare than a talking parrot, and was forgotten more quickly. It was the design of genetic engineers seeking a simplified organism, stripping out every nonessential enzymatic pathway inserted their genome into a bacterial husk. Although the genomes of many organisms have now been sequenced, it leaves a problem generally considered intractable in its totality: understanding all the enzymatic pathways of the cell. The genomic origins understood, the dynamics remain incredibly murky.
The creation of life was a breakthrough robbed completely of surprise by a biological science that had passed through the stages of morphology, physiology, and biochemistry to an elaborate informatic system stemming directly out of the double helix of Watson and Crick. Every high school biology student from the mid sixties on who was among the lucky ones exposed to a modern curricula was told, in no uncertain terms, that life would be understood, because:
- Life is a process, not a thing.
- The Rosetta stone of life, the DNA double helix, had been obtained.
- Years of hard work had already produced some results, such as viral structures.
Actually, there was some luck. Taq, the high-temperature-stable DNA polymerase, so crucial to PCR cloning, so as to produce the quantities of DNA necessary for sequencing, was discovered in hadobacteria in Yellowstone National Park. Genetic engineering is crucially reliant on Taq. Isn’t it poetic?
A generation of biologists have spent their lives manipulating the informatics of living things, in such a way that accustoms the mind to a little mental separation between the idea of life, and the flesh and blood, xylem and phoem, nuclei and plasma. The wet stuff seems to have a monopoly on the execution of the idea, but perhaps this is illusory.
Next, while Ukraine bubbles and stews, we’ll consider how some stretch in the idea of life is useful, both as a tool in the categorization of processes, and in the identification of the real thing in unfamiliar places.