The effort to create synthetic life is driven partly by the need to understand the chemical transition from inanimate to animate that marked the emergence of real life, and partly by the demands of advanced medicine. This exciting endeavor has attracted scientists from numerous fields, making the area of synthetic life research truly interdisciplinary.
Scientists who study the origins of life –the first cell– generally experiment with the kinds of biochemical structures thought to have comprised protolife molecules. But the biochemical properties of the cell are extremely complex, with many of the internal processes occurring simultaneously. Such complexity presents a formidable challenge for the construction of even the most primitive protocell or its components. Lab experiments over decades, however, have suggested that amino acids and ribonucleotides can be created by several means, and that in time the ingredients and procedures for assembling life will be discovered.
Uncovering the structure of the cell and its mechanisms will be a great achievement for its own sake. But the potential for synthetic cells and components has stimulated a great deal of medically-related research. Synthetic cells will provide biological solutions for many cancers and genetic diseases, for example. And there are already promising developments in the attempts to create synthetic organs such as kidneys, eyes, and skin. Synthetic limb prototypes are already being tested.
Synthetic cells can be developed in a number of ways. Some researchers attempt to create cells from scratch, But it is also possible to use stem cells to generate specific tissue, or components of real cells as scaffolds to build tissue.