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Life in Venice

By Joe Rojas-Burke

Mark Bedau ’76 and Norman Packard ’77 used to stay up late nights at Reed pondering the nature of life. What makes organisms alive? Is there a knowable organizing principle behind living cells? Can life be broken down into its constituent parts?

Thirty years later, Bedau and Packard are on a quest for answers. Surrounded by powerful computers and sophisticated equipment in a high-tech industrial park on the outskirts of Venice, Italy—and bankrolled with millions of euros—they are trying to produce actual cells. The two Reedies are part of a long-shot entry in the race to create artificial life.

Bedau, a philosophy professor at Reed, and Packard, a physicist known for his entrepreneurial success at applying computer models to predict financial markets, are the founders of ProtoLife, an eight-employee biotech startup. ProtoLife is in turn part of a multi-national research consortium funded by a four-year, $10 million grant from the European Commission. A steady stream of Reedies have been involved in the work of Bedau and Packard over the years, contributing to every aspect from computer simulation to bioethics research (see Reedies on the Artificial Life Trail).

Bedau, who is on leave from Reed this spring, believes that the surest way to resolve life’s basic questions is by building a basic life form from scratch. It may sound futuristic and even quixotic, but his is only one of several well-funded research groups vying to create an artificial cell capable of living off its surroundings, multiplying, and evolving.

“It’s a problem that clearly has a solution,” he says without a hint of hubris, adding that the stakes are anything but purely philosophical. Sooner or later, he predicts, powerful new technologies will create programmable living microscopic entities that can perform any number of tasks: clearing artery-clogging plaque in patients prone to heart attack, digesting toxic pollutants that are lethal to natural forms of life, or splitting water molecules to make hydrogen fuel. “It would open the door to a whole new range of technological applications, because life is incredibly flexible, adaptive, evolving, and capable of repairing itself,” Bedau says.

In fact, as Packard likes to point out, even the simplest bacteria can reproduce themselves, a capability far beyond the most advanced human-engineered computer or spacecraft. Which is one key reason Packard has invested a few million dollars of his own money in what he elegantly refers to as “crossing the barrier of nonliving matter to living matter.”

And although Packard readily acknowledges that the capabilities of artificial cells will initially fall short of even the simplest existing organisms, that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm. “Even very simple functionality may be extremely powerful,” he says, “just by virtue of the fact that life itself is very powerful.”

Many scientists agree that advances in chemistry and biology have put the creation of a simple life form from non-living chemicals within reach; a few are convinced the goal can be attained in a decade or less. The contenders are pursuing many different approaches. But Bedau, Packard, and their colleagues at ProtoLife in Venice have embraced what is arguably the most radical and difficult route, a long-shot effort that could, if successful, redefine what it means to be alive.

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