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Playing God

Advances in technology have allowed scientists to come closer than ever to the physical origins of life. But they are as far away as ever from defining life.

Several research teams around the world are trying to create life out of chemicals, and they estimate they will have success in three to ten years. "We're all sort of thinking that the next origin of life will be in somebody's lab," say Dr. David Deamer. But the biochemistry professor from the University of California at Santa Cruz also says it is better to describe life, not define it.

One Christian scientist says it's going to be impossible to define life apart from God. Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, says, "It's an important but ultimately frustrating question if one expects to come up with a nice clean shiny answer; it ain't going to happen." Collins believes that those who "play God" in the laboratory usually don't believe in God.

But Mark Bedau, a professor with his feet in both disciplines, disagrees. Bedau is a philosophy professor and also works at a synthetic biology firm. His team is trying to make single-cell organisms from chemical components. "We are doing things which were thought to be the province, in some quarters, of God," said Bedau, "[things] like making new forms of life." Bedau is optimistic about future possibilities. "Life is very powerful," he explains, "and if we can get it to do what we want…there are all kinds of good things that can be done. Playing God is a good thing to do as long as you're doing it responsibly."

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