Evolution in the News - July 2002
by Do-While Jones

Life in the Lab?

Scientists have not created life yet, but they have come much closer now than they ever had in the past.

Researchers in New York have created infectious polioviruses from ordinary, inert chemicals they obtained from a scientific mail-order house, marking the first time a functional virus has been made from scratch and raising a host of new scientific and ethical concerns.

The Stony Brook team started with nothing more than a written copy of the virus's RNA code, a string of 7,741 molecular "letters" that tell the virus how to function.

The first task was to construct a strand of RNA that reflected that written blueprint. But since RNA is relatively unstable in the laboratory, the team first made a DNA version of the virus's code by ordering customized pieces of DNA from an Iowa-based company that sells made-to-order snippets of genetic material. The team assembled the molecules into a DNA equivalent of the full-length polio genome, then used an enzyme that turns DNA into RNA to make a working copy of the poliovirus's natural RNA core.

When placed in a tube filled with appropriate chemicals and enzymes, those pieces of RNA did what they do in nature: They copied themselves and started producing proteins, including protein shells into which newly made pieces of RNA were spontaneously packaged.

The result was countless functional polioviruses.

"This shows it's now possible to go from data printed on a piece of paper or stored in a computer and, without the organism itself. . . . reconstruct a life form," said John La Montagne, deputy director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. 1

The last statement makes if sound as if a “life form” has been constructed in a laboratory. But technically, viruses aren’t really alive.

Scientists generally reserve the term "alive" for entities that can respire, reproduce and grow on their own. The first conglomeration of chemicals into free-living, microscopic membrane-bound packets worthy of being called living cells occurred about 3.5 billion years ago. Viruses, which appeared later, are chemical entities that can replicate only by hijacking the molecular machinery inside cells. 2

The first life form could not have been a virus. A virus is a parasite, which requires a living host in order to survive. So, scientists have not created anything like the first living cell. They have created something that can infect a living cell.

The two main concerns of the Washington Post article were the ethical implications, and the potential use for bioterrorism. In fact, the subtitle of the article was, “Made-From-Scratch Pathogen Prompts Concerns About Bioethics, Terrorism”. Those are issues that we don’t address.

What struck us about this article is that it demonstrates why the virus could not have been the natural basis for life. First, they needed the “RNA code, a string of 7,741 molecular ‘letters’ that tell the virus how to function.” They could not have used any old string of 7,741 base-pairs. They needed a particular sequence, which they could not even figure out themselves--they had to copy it from an existing virus. That’s because the sequence has to have meaning. Any old random sequence will not work.

Second, they could not work with RNA directly because “RNA is relatively unstable in the laboratory”. It is unstable outside the laboratory, too. That’s why you don’t find globs of it floating around in warm ponds anywhere, coming to life. So, “the team first made a DNA version of the virus's code by ordering customized pieces of DNA from an Iowa-based company that sells made-to-order snippets of genetic material.” We wonder where that Iowa-based company got the DNA they needed. We honestly don’t know, but we bet they took long strands of DNA, which sooner or later have a short segment of the desired sequence, and snipped the DNA just before and just after the sequence to obtain the snippet. So, we presume, the Iowa-based company is dependent upon pre-existing living material to cut up to supply the required snippets.

Third, they “used an enzyme that turns DNA into RNA.” Clearly they aren’t simulating how life could have begun because they are starting with DNA and enzymes. These things aren’t exactly simple building blocks.

Finally, the RNA they manufactured was “placed in a tube filled with appropriate chemicals and enzymes.” The word “placed” implies to us that the RNA had to be transported from the environment in which it was created, into a different environment that allowed it to reproduce. This second environment had to contain “appropriate chemicals”, which implies that there must be some inappropriate chemicals which could not have been used.

According to the Washington Post,

Other experts said that although the task is complicated, it is within the skill range of many molecular biologists today and could be done with perhaps as little as $10,000 worth of equipment and reagents. 3

That is the key sentence, as far as we are concerned. It says that the task is complicated. It takes special reagents (chemicals). It takes special equipment. But most of all, it takes skillful molecular biologists. That means it could not have happened by chance.

It isn’t as if a scientist said, “Four years ago we were doing some experiments on how to make a better kind of synthetic rubber. When we were done with the experiments, we put chemicals away in a closet. This week, when we were cleaning out the closet, we discovered that these chemicals had produced a new form of life.”

A key part of the experiment was the conscious intention to create a particular virus. The fact that the intended virus was created does not mean that it could have formed unintentionally.

If there is an epidemic of polio in the United States, the most reasonable assumption is that a bioterrorist created the virus and released it here. The second most reasonable assumption is that it was accidentally re-introduced by someone who became infected in another country where polio still exists. The third most reasonable assumption is that there was some polio virus in a dead animal that was buried in a cave somewhere in America, which was uncovered by some unlucky explorers, who became infected and infected other people. You would have to go down a long list of possibilities before the next most reasonable assumption is, “the polio virus just formed itself from an unlucky combination of chemicals.” Nobody is going to believe that the polio virus formed itself naturally because we know it takes a skillful molecular biologist with special equipment, and special chemicals, who performs a complicated task to achieve a specific result.

So, if anyone tries to tell you that scientists in New York have shown how the first life could have formed spontaneously, you will know it isn’t true.

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1 Washington Post, July 12, 2002, “Polio-Causing Virus Created in N.Y. Lab” Page A01 (Ev)
2 ibid.
3 ibid.