By Stephen Caesar
Associates for Biblical Research
“Creating Life from RNA”
As is well known by readers of this column, scientists have been trying to create life in
the laboratory—or, at the very least, a semblance of what many theorize to have been the original
building blocks of life. As has also been discussed previously in this column, recent studies have
suggested that the earliest life sprang from RNA, and two scientists have successfully created a
strand of RNA that startlingly mimics the way primitive life is believed to have developed.
According to the January 17-23 2009 issue of the journal New Scientist, “A synthetic
molecule that performs an essential function of life—self-replication—could shed light on the
origin of all living things. The lab-born strand of ribonucleic acid (RNA) can evolve in a test
tube to double itself ever more swiftly. This is the first time that an experiment has produced an
RNA that can sustain its own replication” (Callaway 2009: 9).
Biochemist Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and his
colleague Tracey Lincoln were the two scientists who accomplished this feat. According to New
Scientist, “Joyce and Lincoln created their RNA enzyme, or ribozyme, called R3C, from scratch
to perform a single function: stitching two shorter RNAs together to create a clone of itself”
In the next step, Lincoln redesigned R3C, creating a “sister RNA” that could itself join
two RNA strands into one ribozyme. Instead of replicating themselves, both molecules made a
copy of their “sisters.” This process is known as cross replication. In this experiment, the pairs
doubled until there were no more original strands of RNA. “We just let them amplify themselves
silly,” stated Joyce (Ibid.).
New Scientist went on to report: “The team then sought to ‘evolve’ their molecule. They
added different versions of R3C ribozyme pairs to test tubes containing a wider range of RNA
building blocks….What came about bore an eerie resemblance to natural selection: a few
sequences proved to be winners, but most lost out. The victors emerged because they could
replicate faster in the face of competition, Joyce says” (Ibid.).
The process of natural selection to which the journal refers could not have begun without
the two intelligent designers, Joyce and Lincoln, initiating the process by creating the RNA
strand in the first place. This strongly suggests that, if life on Earth indeed began this way, there
must have been an intelligent designer to initiate the process, since Joyce and Lincoln’s synthetic
molecule did not form by itself.
When it comes to the origins of life, we may never know with absolute certainty what
actually happened. According to Michael Robertson, a biochemist at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, the story of the origin of life “is a historical problem that we’re never
going to be able to verify” (Ibid.).
Callaway, E. 2009. “Self-replicator suggests life began with RNA.” New Scientist 201, no. 2691.
Stephen Caesar holds his master’s degree in anthropology/archaeology from Harvard. He is a staff member at
Associates for Biblical Research.