As is well known by readers of this column, scientists have been trying to create life in the laboratory-or, at the very least, a semblance of what many theorize to have been the original building blocks of life. As has also been discussed previously in this column, recent studies have suggested that the earliest life sprang from RNA, and two scientists have successfully created a strand of RNA that startlingly mimics the way primitive life is believed to have developed.
According to the January 17-23 2009 issue of the journal New Scientist,
A synthetic molecule that performs an essential function of life-self-replication-could shed light on the origin of all living things. The lab-born strand of ribonucleic acid (RNA) can evolve in a test tube to double itself ever more swiftly. This is the first time that an experiment has produced an RNA that can sustain its own replication (Callaway 2009: 9).
Biochemist Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and his colleague Tracey Lincoln were the two scientists who accomplished this feat. According to New Scientist, 'Joyce and Lincoln created their RNA enzyme, or ribozyme, called R3C, from scratch to perform a single function: stitching two shorter RNAs together to create a clone of itself' (Ibid.).
In the next step, Lincoln redesigned R3C, creating a 'sister RNA' that could itself join two RNA strands into one ribozyme. Instead of replicating themselves, both molecules made a copy of their 'sisters.' This process is known as cross replication. In this experiment, the pairs doubled until there were no more original strands of RNA. 'We just let them amplify themselves silly,' stated Joyce (Ibid.).
New Scientist went on to report:
The team then sought to 'evolve' their molecule. They added different versions of R3C ribozyme pairs to test tubes containing a wider range of RNA building blocks….What came about bore an eerie resemblance to natural selection: a few sequences proved to be winners, but most lost out. The victors emerged because they could replicate faster in the face of competition, Joyce says' (Ibid.).
The process of natural selection to which the journal refers could not have begun without the two intelligent designers, Joyce and Lincoln, initiating the process by creating the RNA strand in the first place. This strongly suggests that, if life on Earth indeed began this way, there must have been an intelligent designer to initiate the process, since Joyce and Lincoln's synthetic molecule did not form by itself.
When it comes to the origins of life, we may never know with absolute certainty what actually happened. According to Michael Robertson, a biochemist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the story of the origin of life 'is a historical problem that we're never going to be able to verify' (Ibid.).
Callaway, E. 2009. 'Self-replicator suggests life began with RNA.' New Scientist 201, no. 2691.