Category: Synthetic Biology

The Blueprint for an Artificial Cell

It isn’t such a good idea to try to build a house without a set of blueprints to guide the construction. The same goes for building cells. That’s why a team of synthetic biologists from Rockefeller University recently published the blueprint for the artificial cell project, a research program aiming to design a synthetic cell from “scratch.”1

Researchers associated with this program are trying to make a viable synthetic cell, from the bottom up. They aren’t the only ones. Synthetic biologists from around the world are taking part in the quest to make artificial cells from scratch, but each research group is using different types of components. While some teams use novel materials, the Rockefeller University team is using the basic ingredients that make up cells in nature.

Several different research teams have already achieved a number of important milestones, including the group from Rockefeller University. (I discuss some of these milestones in my new book, Creating Life in the Lab.) In the process a number of significant hurdles have been uncovered as well. Instead of using a hit-and-miss approach to work around these impediments, the Rockefeller University synthetic biologists have proposed a comprehensive strategy to guide the creation of artificial cells.

The Rockefeller University scientists recognized a close correspondence between a cell’s operation and a von Neumann self-replicating automaton. This recognition forms the basis for their strategy to assemble an artificial cell. The objective is to assemble a protocell, using pieces taken from the cell, so that it has the same components as a von Neumann self-replicating automaton.

This automaton, like a cell, is capable of reproducing itself exactly. This conceptual entity consists of four components:

  1. a universal constructor that makes a copy of the offspring;
  2. a set of instructions for the constructor’s work;
  3. a copier that duplicates the instructions for the offspring; and
  4. a controller that controls both the universal constructor and the copier.

In the cell, the transcription/translation system functions as the universal constructor; DNA as the instructions; the DNA replication apparatus as the copier; and the genetic regulatory system as the controller.

The researchers noted that, in addition to these four parts, an artificial cell must include components that aren’t part of the von Neumann automaton. An artificial cell requires metabolic processes that involve the uptake of materials and energy from the environment and the expulsion of unwanted by-products. The synthetic cell also needs a mechanism to reproduce the boundary separating its interior from the exterior environment. Finally, the exterior environment must be large enough for waste to diffuse away from the cell and include a fine-tuned composition of building block materials (such as amino acids, nucleotides, etc.) so that the artificial cell can be “fed.”

This blueprint for an artificial cell has already proved useful. The synthetic biologists from Rockefeller University have used it to assess the progress made by their lab (as well as other research groups) to generate precursors to artificial cells. This evaluation exposes current hurdles and suggests possible ways around these problems.

One of the most striking features of the artificial cell program is the extensive knowledge about the structure and operation of biochemical systems needed to develop the blueprint. It is also readily apparent how having a master strategy in place is critical for the success of this research endeavor. In other words, the generation of an artificial cell depends on the understanding and ingenuity of the researchers. That is, the creation of life in the lab requires intelligent agents to guide and carry out the process.

Does it make sense that undirected evolutionary mechanisms could generate life when the creation of artificial cells requires the involvement of researchers to come about? In light of this requirement, it is only reasonable to conclude that life’s origin also requires the work of a Creator.

1. Vincent Noireaux, Yusuke T. Maedab, and Albert Libchaber, “Development of an Artificial Cell, from Self-Organization to Computation and Self-Reproduction,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108, no. 9 (March 1, 2011): 3473–80.

When it comes to sugars, most people want to find ways to break them down. But there are a few scientists who want to figure out ways to put these compounds together. Recently, researchers took this desire to the extreme by devising machines that synthesize sugars.1 The work represents an important milestone for scientists studying sugar biochemistry. It also provides new reasons to believe that life emanates from the work of a Creator.


Sugars belong to a class of biomolecules called carbohydrates. This class of compounds consists of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in the specific ratio of 1:2:1, respectively. (Biochemists use the general formula CnH2nOn, [where n can be any number] to represent carbohydrates.)

Carbohydrates (also called saccharides) come in a variety of forms. Monosaccharides (mono = one) are carbohydrates composed of a single sugar residue. Glucose and fructose are two monosaccharides recognizable to the diet-conscious. Disaccharides (di = two) consist of two sugars linked together. One familiar example of a disaccharide is sucrose (table sugar), which consists of the sugars glucose and fructose linked together.

Polysaccharides (poly = many) form when numerous sugars link together. Starch and cellulose are two common examples of polysaccharides, both consist of glucose linked together in long chains. The difference between starch and cellulose stems from the nature of the linkage between the individual glucose molecules.

Oligosaccharides (oligo = few) form when a handful of sugar molecules are linked together. Frequently, oligosaccharides are attached to proteins associated with the exterior surface of cell membranes and proteins secreted by the cell. These oligosaccharides play a structural role, for example, mediating cell-cell contact. In spite of these compounds’ importance, biochemists have limited understanding of the structure-function relationships for oligosaccharides. One of the reasons for this lack of insight is the short supply of pure, chemically defined oligosaccharides. These compounds are found at such low concentrations in nature that purifying them from a biological source is often not a realistic option.

Laboratory Synthesis of Sugars

Synthesizing the desired oligosaccharide in the lab represents one sure way around this dilemma. But this is not a trivial task, by any means. Part of the problem is that when sugar molecules react, they can combine in a number of different ways. For example, fructose and glucose can, in principle, form 50 different bonds with each other, only one of which makes the disaccharide sucrose.

One trick chemists use to control the specificity of the reaction between sugars is to attach protecting groups to reactive parts of the molecule. These groups prevent the reactive moieties from participating in chemical reactions. Researchers have devised techniques that allow them to remove specific protecting groups selectively. By judiciously choosing which protecting groups to remove, chemists can precisely control the types of bonds that form between two sugars, directing them to combine in only one possible way.

Because sugars have so many reactive groups, it is very difficult to employ the above strategy to synthesize a desired oligosaccharide. In fact, only a few laboratories around the world have the capability to carry out the synthesis of these types of carbohydrates.

To address this problem, some scientists are trying to build machines that will carry out the automated synthesis of oligosaccharides. These machines will make it possible for researchers working on oligosaccharide biochemistry to make structurally defined sugars quickly and inexpensively without relying on the skills of highly specialized chemists.

Significant strides have been made towards this end. A few months ago, two separate groups unveiled commercially available oligosaccharide-synthesizing machines. German chemist Peter Seeberger heads up one group. He based his machine on a sophisticated chemical protocol he developed and published nearly a decade ago.2 At that time, many people felt the chemistry was too complicated and unreliable for use in an automated sugar synthesizer. So Seeberger spent the last decade perfecting the chemistry and the automated synthesizer. It’s now at the point where a nonexpert can run the machine and carry out a task that once took a team of accomplished chemists to achieve.

This advance was decades in the making. Moreover, Seeberger based the chemistry for his automated sugar synthesizer on the techniques employed by automated DNA synthesizers and peptide synthesizers—techniques that were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Bruce Merrifield, for example, received the prize in 1984 for his work in solid-phase peptide synthesis.)

The difficulty in making oligosaccharides in the lab, either by conventional methods at the bench top or within the internal operations of a sugar synthesizer, stands in sharp contrast to the elegant and effortless way living systems produce these compounds via metabolic pathways mediated by enzymes. The structure of the enzymes makes it possible for sugar units to be combined to make oligosaccharides in a highly specific manner inside the cell. This process takes just a few short steps without the need for adding and then selectively removing protecting groups.

This contrast between manmade and natural systems forces the question: given the difficulty the best chemists in the world (who stand on the shoulders of generations of scientists before them) experience in assembling even relatively small oligosaccharides, is it reasonable to conclude that the elegant and highly efficient metabolic systems inside the cell arose by undirected evolutionary processes? It seems more rational to conclude that the biochemical systems inside the cell are the work of an intelligent Agent who carefully devised the structures and operations of enzymes to carry out what otherwise would be nearly impossible chemical syntheses.


  1. Richard Van Noorden, “Sugar Synthesis Speeds Up,” Nature 466 (2010): 1029; “First Automated Carbohydrate ‘Assembly Line’ Opens Door to New Field of Medicine,”,, accessed January 26, 2011.
  2. Obadiah J. Plante, Emma R. Palmacci, and Peter H. Seeberger, “Automated Solid-Phase Synthesis of Oligosaccharides,” Science 291 (2001): 1523–27.


When asked what makes the difference between a good hockey player and a great one, Wayne Gretzky replied (I’m paraphrasing): A good hockey player skates to the puck; a great one skates to where the puck is going to be.

One of our goals at Reasons To Believe is to skate to where the apologetics puck is going to be. We want to anticipate scientific advance before it happens. That way we can equip Christians with a ready response when a breakthrough does occur.

Baker Books recently released my latest work, Creating Life in the Lab. The book tells the story of scientists’ efforts to create artificial, nonnatural, novel single-cell entities in the lab. Anticipating their success, I explore how their research may impact Christianity.

Though it seems like science fiction, the quest for artificial life will soon reach its goal. In 2010, biologist Craig Venter’s research team announced the development of a methodology for generating synthetic bacteria unlike any that exists in nature. Other investigators have successfully used genetic engineering techniques to modify microbes, giving them novel metabolic capabilities. Biologist Jack Szostak of Harvard University heads up a research team on the cusp of “creating” (starting with simple chemical compounds) protocells that manifest many of life’s key properties.

The creation of life in the lab will usher in a biotechnology revolution with unimaginable potential benefit for humanity. Applications for medicine, agriculture, and industry will radically transform the world. But this potential advance also raises troubling questions. Are these artificial life-forms safe? Are human beings trying to “play God”? Is it ethical to make artificial life?

For many Christians, the most troubling question is theological: If life can be assembled in a lab, is God necessary to explain life’s existence? Some scientists assert that if we can make life, then there is nothing special about life. Our creative ability lends credence, they suggest, to the idea that life evolved from nonliving matter on Earth’s surface.

I disagree. In Creating Life in the Lab, I show that, rather than validating an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin, work in synthetic biology will unwittingly demonstrate that life must come from the work of an intelligent Agent. By working our way to where the puck is going to be in the synthetic biology arena, we have poised Christian apologetics to score an important goal in the case for the Creator.