Now they are a tightly orchestrated dance:
For decades, biologists had assumed that activity in the cytoplasm was essentially random; the cellular world churned with such dramatic speed that the right proteins would eventually bump into one another. But it turned out that some molecules in the cytoplasm weren’t randomly circulating. They were swirling in ways that brought related parties together. Suppose an important reaction involved five proteins out of ten thousand; the five tended to hang around one another, loosely attracted. (They sometimes had floppy regions that exerted a mutual pull, and which had been missed in images made of the proteins when they were in crystallized form.) Brangwynne and others found that, under the right conditions, groups of proteins could “phase separate,” like bubbles of oil in a salad dressing, forming structures. For decades, researchers had known that complex biochemical reactions tended to happen faster in living cells than in test tubes. Now they knew why: the lava-lamp-like conditions inside a living cell allow chemicals to take advantage of subtle attractive forces more efficiently than is possible in the looser and more uniform environment of a tube or a dish. We’ve long imagined a spark of life—but it could be the physical structure of cytoplasm that’s the key.
This new understanding has begun to open doors. In 2017, Glass helped found the Build-a-Cell consortium—a steering committee for hundreds of labs that are trying to build a working cell from scratch. Researchers in the consortium began combining nonliving parts—proteins, ribosomes, RNA, and other molecular constructions—into membranes that resembled cells, hoping that the mixture would come to life by expressing genes, doing metabolic work, and eventually dividing. Drew Endy, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford who is one of Glass’s co-founders, described the group as trying to solve the Humpty Dumpty problem: could the parts add up to a whole? Such artificial cells could be used as living factories for the production of biofuels or drugs, or as hyperefficient sites of artificial photosynthesis. But although the right parts are there, none have crossed the border from nonliving to living. Endy’s group was experimenting with slightly different ingredients; if that failed, the problem might be in how they’re physically arranged. He told me, “I think there’s a milestone right in front of us. I don’t think it’s that far away.”James Somers, “A Journey to the Center of Our Cells” at New Yorker (February 28, 2022)
But if the researchers do create living cells, that’s intelligent design, not natural selection acting on random mutations (Darwinism).
Another friend draws our attention to this effort to create a minimal cell (depiction by David Goodsell).
You may also wish to read: Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent? Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?