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Harvard fuels quest to create life from scratch

Machine mimics ribosome activity, professor asserts

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / March 8, 2009
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Harvard scientists have created a biological machine in the lab that manufactures proteins, mimicking the activity of a cellular structure, called a ribosome, that is critical for life.

If it is verified by other scientists, the work by Harvard Medical School professor George Church would be an important step in the quest to create life from scratch.

"The reason it's a step toward artificial life is that the key component of all living systems - the one component that's basically shared by all living systems - is the ribosome," Church said in an interview Friday. "If you're going to make synthetic life that's anything like current life . . . you've got to have this highly conserved, highly complicated biological machine."

Church said he is still writing a manuscript to describe the results in a scientific journal, but that the experiment has been successfully repeated several times in his lab over the past few weeks. Publication in a journal ensures that research is properly vetted by independent scientists.

He was scheduled to describe the work to a gathering of Harvard alumni yesterday afternoon, an unusual forum for discussing new scientific findings. Scientists not involved in the research said they were unable to comment on it without knowing more details.

Church did not literally start from scratch, building a ribosome atom by atom. But he and post-doctoral fellow Michael Jewett did synthesize the structure from basic molecules. His goal now is to create a ribosome that can replicate.

The research - part of the new field of synthetic biology and Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative - has applications that run a wide gamut. Researchers could use such ribosomes to custom-make proteins in a dish, but they could also use the structures to get insights into the origins of life.

"I think it's very exciting. I think from my perspective, this is really a very happy moment, because we now have a good feeling that our project is going to at least tell us something, some answers," said Dimitar Sasselov, a professor of astronomy at Harvard who is interested in finding out whether a ribosome is capable of making proteins with a different symmetry than that found on Earth.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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