Would it be possible to build a living organism?

With current technology, assuming no limit of cost or time, would it be possible to build a living organism using only inanimate matter?

By “inanimate matter”, I assume you mean not starting from an existing organism. The answer, currently, is no. Researchers at the University of Washington have recently been able to build purely synthetic proteins that are not based on any existing protein, and simulate them. However, these are very simple proteins, and there is a significant difference between constructing a protein and putting together an organism with a self-sustaining metabolism.


It’s already been done.

Probably, but we’re not quite there yet.

M. laboratorium is not a synthetic organism. Its genome was synthesized chemically. However, it was then transplanted into the cytoplasm of a natural cell.

Full de-novo synthesis has been done for small viruses (HCV, poliovirus and others), but creating a viable cell from scratch, using only synthetic naked DNA, is much harder, and beyond the reach of current technology.

No. Craig Venter might “call it the first synthetic cell,” but it’s not.

And as the linked article explains:

“They started with a species of bacteria called Mycoplasma capricolum and, by replacing its genome with one they wrote themselves, turned it into a customized variant of a second existing species, called Mycoplasma mycoides, they reported…They transplanted that master set of genes into an emptied cell, where it converted the cell into a different species.”

This is not a build from scratch organism; this is a synthesized genome implanted in a already existing bacteria.


In general, synthetic methods of making biomolecules aren’t nearly as good as the natural methods. If you want to make a protein, the best way is to put a gene that codes for that protein into a bacteria. Same with RNA, DNA, and a fair number of other large biomolecules. We can make entirely synthetic peptides and DNA, but those processes get really expensive and error prone for larger molecules. For DNA, synthesizing 50 nt pieces is cheap, easy, and routine. A few hundred nt is more expensive but not prohibitively so. More than one thousand nt is possible, but it requires a lot of expensive quality control.

Venter’s team synthesized their genome in a hundred 1000 nt fragments, and then pieced those fragments together inside bacteria with old-school and labor intensive techniques. Currently, there’s no way we could do anything similar through entirely synthetic techniques. The best we can do is use some other life form to “bootstrap” our new life form into existence.

Well, now we know who to blame when the synthesized bacterial apocalypse happens.