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Virtual Cell

July 24, 2012

Stanford researchers report constructing the first “virtual cell.” While the news media hyperventilate, let’s ask: What does it mean?

Before defining a virtual cell, or virtual life, the question is: What is life?

Increasingly, molecular biologist assume that a living organism consists of information–DNA, RNA, protein, as well as all the enzyme fluxes, ion fluxes, and regulatory connections that make things happen. If life consists of information, then a “virtual life form” could be made, an informational mirror of life encoded in computer bytes. Just as a book that exists in paper and glue can also exist as an eBook.


A large caveat here–even for the tiny bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, I remain highly skeptical that all life-essential aspects of this organism have been “recreated” in the virtual form. We’re just beginning to learn about bacterial epigenetics for instance. And what about cell polar aging?

Setting those concerns aside: Would eLife be the equivalent of an organic life form, just like eBook of The Highest Frontier is equivalent to the paper form?

Would an eOrganism have feelings and aspirations, just like the organic original?

  1. July 25, 2012 6:27 pm

    All interesting questions (BTW– bacterial epigenetics?, cell polar aging? -future blogs, I hope.) As for that last question ‘would they have feelings?’, it has been suggested that our universe may be virtual, from the standpoint of the Creator–perhaps, even one of many! The ‘natural’ constants may be predefined values, much like DIM statements, that are changed to different values in other e-universes.
    So one could ask the question another way: If WE are virtual, can we know of our own virtuality?

  2. heteromeles permalink
    July 26, 2012 10:38 am

    Presumably, we can know our own virtuality by looking for bugs. Perhaps UFOs and bigfoot are bugs in the simulation? Still, if the rules are run on a computer, then it’s hard to believe that the computer wouldn’t make the occasional mistake. The question is, could we catch such a mistake, and from there infer that the world is a simulation?

    And tend to think it isn’t, simply because there are large classes of math problems (lumped as chaos, black swans, and so forth), where the computation effort to solve them requires computers that would be many trillions of times larger than the known universe. The fact that reality routinely solves such “problems” through sheer random accident makes me believe that we’re not living in a simulation.

    As for a virtual organism, unless we can interact with the organism, the question of whether it has feelings and aspirations is moot. Whether those feelings and aspirations are at all the same as human aspirations is unanswerable at present, simply because feelings are subjectively experiential, and until we can generalize what feelings and aspirations are, it’s going to be tricky to determine whether the virtual organism’s outputs fall into that class.

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