Ask A Scientist

Do you ever use the things that you learn to make a new living organism?

Asked by: Brooklyn Hoyt
School: East Middle School, Binghamton
Grade: 8
Teacher: Ms. Browne
Hobbies/Interests: Softball and reading
Career Interest: Doctor

Answer from Hiroki Sayama

Director, Collective Dynamics of Complex Systems Research Group, Binghamton University

Research area: Complex systems, artificial life, mathematical biology, computer and information sciences
PhD school: University of Tokyo
Interests/hobbies: Traveling, walking, swimming
Family: Wife, Mari; two sons (Takehiro - 15) and (Yukihiro - 11)
Web page address: http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~sayama/

Thanks Brooklyn, I was waiting for this question! The answer is a resounding 'yes'. You may be surprised, but there is a scientific research area called "Artificial Life", where researchers are working hard to create new forms of living things using unconventional materials of their choice. There is even a large international conference on this topic, and the next one is being held in New York City this summer (http://alife14.org). Binghamton University’s Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science is a sponsor of this conference, and I am also helping to organize it.

Let me give you examples of how researchers are creating living organisms. Some researchers mix oil, water and other chemical substances to synthesize cellular structures that can grow and divide. Others use electronic and robotic materials to build a life-like creature that can move around and sense and adapt to the outside world. My work? Since I learned computer science in college, my favorite choice of materials is computation. I therefore synthesize living organisms as growing, reproducing, self-healing and evolving patterns in computers. In fact, there are many computer scientists working in this area.

But you may want to say—"Hey, that’s not living! Those are just oil drops, robots or computer programs." If you think so, think again. Why did you think natural living organisms are alive, but those synthesized organisms aren’t? Is that because those synthesized ones aren’t made of proteins like you or I are made of? But if there were other forms of life far away in the universe, they would most likely not be made of the same materials as ours either, yet we would probably still call them "life." So, the ingredients aren’t a critical factor in determining whether something is alive or not. What else? Can you come up with any other criterion that distinguishes between natural living things and those synthesized "artificial life"?

And that is precisely what this academic field is trying to accomplish: To find an answer to the fundamental question "What is life?" by creating various kinds of artificial living organisms in unusual ways. Researchers (including me) believe that the general definition of life can and should be derived based on not only life as we know it, but also life as it could be. Since humans haven’t found any other form of life on other planets (yet), an alternative approach is to create them by ourselves. This is a very unusual, yet exciting research field that requires a lot of creative approaches and one of the many reasons why I enjoy working on this topic very much.

Last Updated: 9/18/13