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Steven Benner takes one small step toward artificial life

Molecular biologist Steven Benner talks about a molecule he’s designed that could be a first step towards an artificial life form.

Steven Benner: In science you get excited by incremental steps, by even small things. And in a sense, this is an incremental step.

Molecular biologist Steven Benner is talking about a molecule-sized step towards creating artificial life forms. The DNA of all life on Earth is made up of the same four chemical ‘letters’ of the genetic code. Benner has designed a DNA molecule with eight chemical letters in addition to the four natural letters. He said the next step is to make his artificial DNA self-sustaining.

Steven Benner: If you can retain artificial genetic alphabets in the copying process, that means you have the ability to take the next step and make it self-sustaining. And that’s one of many steps that’s going to be taken as we try to get an artificial life form.

Benner said artificial DNA molecules are used as medical tools – for example to help doctors monitor the level of HIV in a patient’s blood. The artificial DNA can identify and tag the viral DNA. But he said the creation and search for new forms of life goes much deeper.

Steven Benner: It’s an old question, right? How life originated is very closely tied to the question, are we alone? If there’s a lot of aliens out there, it means it must be easy to get life originating, and it must be easy to sustain life.

Benner said one rule of life is that it must be capable of Darwinian evolution. Currently, human hands are needed to help the artificial life systems evolve.

Steven Benner: The idea is that this is a chemical system able to be copied, have those copies be imperfect, and have those imperfections be copyable, and that’s the system that can undergo Darwinian evolution.

Our thanks to:
Steven Benner
Distinguished Fellow
Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution
Gainesville, Florida

Lindsay Patterson