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January 28, 2011 / Martijn

Making life, but not as we know it

Can you create life from scratch using different chemical building blocks to ours? An ambitious new experiment aims to find out

TECHNICIAN Jim McIver peers round from the back of large black rig, his face half obscured by a cascade of wires. On the bench top in front of him, a network of tubes supplies a series of small reaction flasks with a mysterious bubbling fluid. McIver lifts his hands to make an adjustment, revealing fingertips singed by hours of soldering.

It is a scene that fits the cinematic cliché of the mad scientist’s laboratory, but this is no crazed loner’s den. We are in the chemistry department of the University of Glasgow, UK, and Lee Cronin, McIver’s energetic boss, is far from a sinister Victor Frankenstein figure. That said, he has a superficially similar goal. With a string of high-profile results already under his belt, he is about to flick the switch on his most ambitious experiment yet: to evolve the chemical complexity required for life in just 5000 hours of lab time.



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