Life as we know it, and as we don’t

December 21, 2020

Age-old existential questions such as “how did we get here?” and “are we alone?” bridge the gap between science and philosophy. Scientists who study astrobiology -- the study of the story of life past, present, and future in the Universe -- seek to answer these questions.

The field of astrobiology is as big as the Universe itself; it encompasses many disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, and planetary science, to name a few.

Another one of these disciplines is synthetic biology: creating and redesigning biological systems for different purposes. One of the main goals of synthetic biology is to create a working “synthetic cell” from simple chemical and biological materials.

Synthetic cells are small vessels engineered to mimic the functions of living cells but are made from both non-living and biologically-active components. The frame for synthetic cells are lipid molecules that join together to form small bubble-like compartments, similar to the membrane that surrounds human cells.

I am a graduate student in Dr. Kate Adamala's lab working on developing these synthetic cells. Our research focuses on putting different things into and around those compartments, such as DNA and proteins, to expand the functions of these artificial cells.

This “bottom-up” approach to synthetic biology and the creation of synthetic cells are of great use for the study of astrobiology. Studying ways that we can recreate life in the lab may provide insight into how life assembled on Earth many billions of years ago. Moreover, life elsewhere in the Universe probably looks different than life here on Earth, and this work may help elucidate how we as humans define “life.”

Domagal-Goldman, S. D., Wright, K. E., Adamala, K., De La Rubia, L. A., Bond, J., Dartnell, L. R., Goldman, A. D., Lynch, K., Naud, M. E., Paulino-Lima, I. G., Singer, K., Walter-Antonio, M., Abrevaya, X. C., Anderson, R., Arney, G., Atri, D., Azuá-Bustos, A., Bowman, J. S., Brazelton, W. J., ... Wong, T. (2016). The astrobiology primer v2.0. Astrobiology16(8), 561-653.