One morning last fall, a dozen or so government scientists shuffle into a small conference room on the sprawling grounds of Los Alamos National Laboratory to kick off an unusual research project. The room, tucked away in the basement of an old physics building known as SM-40, has paint-flaked cinderblock walls and a tangle of exposed plumbing overhead. The only decorative touch, a cheap potted floor plant, is slumped half-dead in the corner. Eventually a tall man with a sculpted Scandinavian jawline hurries in. Steen Rasmussen apologizes for running late. He shakes a few hands and then cues the team's lead chemist, Liaohai Chen, to begin. Someone flips off the lights, and a PowerPoint slide flashes onto a projector screen.
The slide reads: "We are not crazy."
For an instant the scientists seem unsure how to react. Some laugh, others look uneasy. And who could blame them? Los Alamos, famed birthplace of the atomic bomb, has just awarded Rasmussen nearly $5 million to attempt an experiment as bold as the one that drew scientists to this pine-dotted New Mexico mesa back in the 1940s: He intends to create a brand-new life-form. If any scientific enterprise demands a sanity check at the outset, surely this is it.
Flipping though slides thick with chemical equations, Chen explains how Rasmussen's team of chemists and physicists, who are gathered together here for the first time, will build their bug. They aren't going to simply transform an existing organism by tweaking its DNA. No, Chen explains, they're going to create their being from scratch, literally breathing life into a beaker full of inanimate molecules. It is a Frankensteinian vision-though, granted, one that will unfold on the nano scale. The team's "protocell" will be thousands of times as small as a typical bacterium and far more primitive. But if all goes as planned, it will possess the defining characteristics of life: It will spawn offspring, generate its own energy, even evolve. Left unspoken was this: If Rasmussen, who first started contemplating protocells seven years ago, and his colleagues succeed, they will have crossed a threshold, bestowing on humankind powers that now belong exclusively to nature (or to God, depending on your beliefs).
The desire to create life is nothing new. In the Renaissance, scientists would put a hunk of raw meat in a jar, set it aside, come back in a few weeks, and observe the "spontaneous generation" of life-maggots and the like. In the 1790s, Italian physician Luigi Galvani observed movement when he jolted the severed legs of frogs with electricity; his experiments inspired Mary Shelley in the writing of Frankenstein nearly three decades later. In 1953 Stanley Miller and Harold Urey of the University of Chicago conducted a landmark investigation: They tossed together
molecules thought to have been present in the Earth's early atmosphere-methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor-and arced a spark of electricity through them to simulate lightning. In a week, amino acids, the building blocks of proteins-and thus life-appeared. It was evidence that haphazard chemical interactions could lead to living things.
Chen finishes his presentation, and Rasmussen leans forward. "If we can just make a system that's able to replicate a few times," he says gravely, "we're going to change the world." It's the kind of boast few scientists would dare make aloud, especially when their grant check has only recently cleared. Several of the veterans in the room chuckle and shake their heads-there he goes again.
But Rasmussen's team isn't the only one attempting to create new organisms. By some estimates, more than 100 labs are chipping away at the problem, including one
headed by superstar biologist Craig Venter, whose innovative DNA-sequencing technology led to the decoding of the human genome four years ahead of schedule. Last April the European Union launched the $10-million Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution project, and when I visited
Rasmussen in October, he had caught wind of a Japanese effort about to get under way. "There's no doubt that this is going to happen," he says. "It's no longer a question of "if,'
but of who is going to do it and when."
Many of these scientists are trying to solve the oldest
puzzle in science: How did we get here? What combination of inanimate molecules led, four billion years ago, to the first microscopic creature, and from there to the riot of diversity that is life on Earth? "One of the major questions [this work] could answer is, Was life an accident or inevitable?" says Peter Nielsen, a chemist at the University of Copenhagen who is collaborating with Rasmussen.
Still other investigators are betting that custom-built organisms will spark a biotech boom. Already genetic-
engineering techniques such as gene splicing have made it possible to create everything from fungus-resistant corn to cows that churn out medicines in their milk. But some researchers would rather not limit their handiwork to the raw materials around them. They want to make completely new creatures. "You want more than a plumper pig. You want something outside the realm of what nature can ever conceivably provide," says University of Florida biophysicist Steven Benner.
To accomplish this, though, most scientists are sticking close to nature's script. They're trying to create cells much like the ones that exist today-cells, that is, that are
surrounded by double-layered membranes and stuffed with genetic material in the form of DNA or RNA. Not
Rasmussen. For most of his 49 years, the Danish-born
theoretical physicist has been obsessed with understanding what makes life possible. In attempting to make his own version, he tossed aside biology textbooks and asked himself, What's the simplest living system I can imagine? The result is that his protocell looks like no life-form anyone has ever seen. "I'm sort of out in the extreme," he confesses.
Howard Hanson, who oversees a Los Alamos grant program for high-risk research, says Rasmussen's proposal is one of the most radical his office has ever bankrolled. According to chemist David Deamer, an origins-of-life researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Rasmussen is one of the gutsiest and most original scientists in the field. "He's willing to stick his neck out," Deamer says. "Once in a while it gets chopped off, but he just picks it back up and screws it on again."