Here in a laboratory perched on the edge of the continent, researchers are trying to construct Life As We Donít Know It in a thimbleful of liquid.
Generations of scientists, children and science fiction fans have grown up presuming that humanityís first encounter with alien life will happen in a red sand dune on Mars, or in an enigmatic radio signal from some obscure star.
But it could soon happen right here on Earth, according to a handful of chemists and biologists who are using the tools of modern genetics to try to generate the Frankensteinian spark that will jump the gap separating the inanimate and the animate. The day is coming, they say, when chemicals in a test tube will come to life.
By some measures, Gerald F Joyce, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, has already crossed that line, although he would be the first to say he has notó yet.
Biologists do not agree on what the definition of life should be or whether it is even useful to have one. But most do agree that the ability to evolve and adapt is fundamental to life. And they also agree that having a second example of life could provide insight to how it began and how special life is or is not in the universe, as well as a clue for how to recognise life if and when we do stumble upon it among the stars.
ďEverything we know about life is based on studies of life on Earth,Ē said Chris McKay, a researcher at NASAís Ames Research Laboratory California.
Dr Joyce said recently: ďIt drives me crazy when astronomers say, ĎSurely the universe is pregnant with life.í If we have an Earthlike planet, what are the chances of life arising? Is it one in a million? Is it one in two? I donít see how you can say.Ē He continued, ďIf you had a second example of life, even if it were synthetic, you might know better. Iím betting weíre just going to make it.Ē
Four years ago Dr Joyce and a graduate student, Tracey A Lincoln, now a researcher at