A scientist adds a few chemical compounds to a bubbling beaker and gives it a swirl. Subtle reactions occur, and, lo and behold, a new life-form assembles itself, ready to go forth and prosper. Such is the popular imagining of synthetic biology, or life created in the lab.
But researchers in this field are not as interested in animating the inanimate. In fact, scientists remain far from understanding the basic processes that could allow inert, undirected compounds to assemble into living, self-replicating cells. The famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1952, which created amino acids from primordial goo, remains difficult to replicate conclusively.