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Scientists struggle to define life

August 20, 2007

Scientists struggle to define life –  Annotated

Now scientists are struggling to define life as they manipulate it, look for it on other planets, and even create it in test tubes.

In June, researchers replaced the genetic identity of one bacterium with that of a second microbe. Other scientists are trying to build life from scratch. NASA scientists are searching for life in space but aren’t sure what it will look like. And some futurists are pondering the prospect of robots becoming so human they might be considered a form of life.

So as scientists push the bounds of biology, astronomy and robotics, a big question looms: What exactly is life?

That talk about life is going to get uncomfortable as dreams of creation, from Frankenstein’s monster on, get closer to reality, said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan.

"This issue of ‘what is life’ has been at the core of biology for about 400 years," Caplan said. He said it leads to the more theological questions about whether life is special and whether we are special.

Later this century, the definition of life will be at the heart of a political and societal debate as heated and divisive as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Caplan predicts.

Look for changes in religion, too.

"As knowledge has (been) added, religions have adapted," Venter said. "I don’t see why this is any different. We’re pushing the frontiers of knowledge, understanding life on this planet."

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