Synthesis of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules

THIS IS a subject about which your Curmudgeon has no expertise, but it seems important enough for us to mention it. According to this news release from the Scripps Research Institute: The Immortal Molecule:

One of the most enduring questions is how life could have begun on Earth. Molecules that can make copies of themselves are thought to be crucial to understanding this process as they provide the basis for heritability, a critical characteristic of living systems.

Yes, we know that. But then the news release says, with bold added by us:

Now, a pair of Scripps Research Institute scientists [Tracey A. Lincoln and Gerald F. Joyce] has taken a significant step toward answering that question. The scientists have synthesized for the first time RNA enzymes that can replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components, and the process proceeds indefinitely.

That’s newsworthy. Let’s continue, skipping over some details which you can click over to read for yourself:

Ultimately, this process enabled the team to isolate an evolved version of the original enzyme that is a very efficient replicator, something that many research groups, including Joyce’s, had struggled for years to obtain. The improved enzyme fulfilled the primary goal of being able to undergo perpetual replication. “It kind of blew me away,” says Lincoln.

Newsworthy indeed! Here’s more:

Not content to stop there, the researchers generated a variety of enzyme pairs with similar capabilities. They mixed 12 different cross-replicating pairs, together with all of their constituent subunits, and allowed them to compete in a molecular test of survival of the fittest. Most of the time the replicating enzymes would breed true, but on occasion an enzyme would make a mistake by binding one of the subunits from one of the other replicating enzymes. When such “mutations” occurred, the resulting recombinant enzymes also were capable of sustained replication, with the most fit replicators growing in number to dominate the mixture. “To me that’s actually the biggest result,” says Joyce.

We may be getting carried away, but we suspect that this is very important research. Moving along:

The research shows that the system can sustain molecular information, a form of heritability, and give rise to variations of itself in a way akin to Darwinian evolution. So, says Lincoln, “What we have is non-living, but we’ve been able to show that it has some life-like properties, and that was extremely interesting.”

We continue:

But the main value of the work, according to Joyce, is at the basic research level. “What we’ve found could be relevant to how life begins, at that key moment when Darwinian evolution starts.” He is quick to point out that, while the self-replicating RNA enzyme systems share certain characteristics of life, they are not themselves a form of life.


Joyce says that only when a system is developed in the lab that has the capability of evolving novel functions on its own can it be properly called life. “We’re knocking on that door,” he says, “But of course we haven’t achieved that.”

When life is finally created in the lab, as we confidently expect will happen, what will the creationists say? You know — That’s intelligent design! But what it will really demonstrate is that if mere men can create life, then it’s a natural phenomenon, and no miracles are required.

Link to a pre-publication notice in Science: Self-Sustained Replication of an RNA Enzyme

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8 responses to “Synthesis of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules

  1. Of course no miracles are required. Do you actually believe religious people think God operates outside of his own laws? They’re only miracles to us. Man, I am sick of these lame arguments.

  2. retiredsciguy

    Eric, maybe the laws of nature ARE God. But this isn’t the website to argue over religious beliefs. Besides, it’s pointless to attempt to do so. One can only argue about that which follows logic.

  3. Pointless? Check out that big post above mine. 🙂 ^^^ If one makes a ridiculous illogical argument to say that God does not exist, why should I not -as a scientist – call him out on it?

  4. Perhaps I should stick to scientific sites though that don’t add their own spin to things – thanks for pointing that out.

  5. I need to decide what to do with such comments. I don’t want to be an arbitrary internet tyrant; but I don’t want to be an internet wimp and let such comments slip in and detract from the purpose of this blog. Decisions, decisions …

  6. Eric “Of course no miracles are required.”
    The Miracle of the Virgin Birth.

    “Do you actually believe religious people think God operates outside of his own laws?”
    So God can make a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it?

    “They’re only miracles to us.”
    The unexplained is commonly considered miraculous. Later, it’s explained. Then it loses its luster. A god that works only through natural methods is the same as no god at all.

    “Man, I am sick of these lame arguments.”
    Dude, I am sick of people calling me “man”.

  7. mightyfrijoles

    This is very important work and I will keep my eyes open for a full fledged article on the topic. I am hoping for the research in this area to yield self replicating “life forms” before I shuffle off the face of this sphere.

    It is exciting!

  8. MF says: “… before I shuffle off the face of this sphere.”

    Or drop off the edge. Please don’t be so dogmatic!