At the University of Michigan, conceptual artist Adam W. Brown has assembled an installation of glass beakers, hot plates, and rubber tubes. It doesn’t seem terribly imposing–it has the look of random props left behind on a mad scientist movie set–but what Brown is trying to do with this assemblage of lab equipment is nothing short of profound: it’s called ReBioGeneSys, a self-contained world, and it’s designed to create life from nothing, then set it on its own distinct evolutionary path.
ReBioGeneSys was inspired by the works of chemist Stanley Miller. In 1955, Miller discovered that by filling a beaker with hydrogen, methane, and ammonia gases, then striking them repetitively with a lightning-like electrical discharge he could produce several different types of amino acids, which are the most basic building blocks of life. In 2008, Brown adapted this experiment to a piece called Origins of Live, Experiment 1.x. He discovered that by constantly resupplying the system with fresh gas, water, and minerals, he could create all of the basic chemical compounds necessary for a cell to form, as if from nothing.
The only problem? Brown’s Origins of Life experiment was a chemical Eden where there was no reason for his amino acids, sugars, fatty acids, and lipids to do anything but chillax. For life to evolve over time, though, these building blocks need a more challenging environment to kickstart the process of natural selection. As Miller showed, it’s relatively easy to make amino acids in a primordial soup, but if you want nucleic acids, which are critical to replicating molecules like DNA and RNA forming? You’ve got to stir things up.
ReBioGeneSys is designed to constantly torture the chemicals within in the hopes that more complex life will eventually form. With the help of fellow U. Mich scientist Robert Root-Bernstein, the system was designed so that it constantly blasts the chemicals with electricity and UV rays, freezing them, heating them back up again, dehydrating and then rehydrating them. “Think of it like soup,” Brown tells me. “The more you boil it down, the deeper the flavor becomes, because the molecules draw closer together.”
All together, that means that the ReBioGeneSys system can simulate any possible environment in the universe to see if it could generate life, from the red deserts of Mars to the frozen seas of Europa. The only thing that is missing is enough time to see whether or not life can evolve in whatever conditions Brown sets up.
Unlike other experiments to create synthetic life or recreate RNA from scratch, ReBioGeneSys is meant to be as much science as art, Brown says. “In the scientific world, it’s hard to get funding for an experiment that might not show any results for 1,000 years,” he tells me. “They want things to be less fuzzy than that.” ReBioGeneSys, then, is just as much about trying to build life from scratch as it is a commentary on the nature of time. “If you think about time in terms of five, 10, or even 100 years, matter is strictly binary: it’s either alive or dead,” Brown says. “But if you look at it from the perspective of geological time, over millions of years, the matter of whether something is alive or dead becomes much fuzzier.”
So what would happen if you left ReBioGeneSys in some self-sustained underground bunker somewhere to run for 1,000 years? Would you come back to it and see a self-contained alien world inside, teeming with life that had evolved from nothing? “The artist in me wants to say absolutely, but the scientist in me has to be much more reserved,” Brown says. “It’s an important question, but for me to answer it, it’s kind of an art spoiler. Asking that very question is why I built this in the first place.”