Through the Wormhole s04e02 Episode Script

When Does Life Begin?

Everyone has a beginning.
But when does that beginning begin? Is it the instant two cells fuse together? Or the moment we enter the world? Scientists and religious leaders don't agree on when the first spark of life occurs.
Is life just biology or does our sense of consciousness dictate whether we are truly alive? If we can create consciousness, can we build life out of nonlife and understand when life begins? Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
Life is a miracle.
That's a word we use when we are moved by something and when we don't understand how it happens.
Nine months before a child is born, it's just a handful of cells, no more complex, apparently, than the bacteria that live on our skin.
Both these clumps of cells have genes.
They both reproduce.
One turns into something we value greatly.
The other just makes us sick.
But they are both miracles -- a collection of chemicals with a mysterious spark of life.
Did you ever make your own lunches growing up? I used to make peanut butter sandwiches.
Every once in a while, I'd find a moldy slice of bread.
"Where did this green fuzz come from?" I wondered.
Just seemed to have appeared from thin air.
I wondered what would happen if I left it alone.
Would the mold keep growing into a fuzzy mold monster? It didn't.
It was alive, but not in the way I was.
What was it inside me that made me grow into a boy? Maureen Condic is a biologist at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
She spends her weekends traversing the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, where life springs up all around her.
As a biologist, it's always fascinating to come to the mountains, because there's such a diversity of life around you, and it all comes into being in radically different ways.
All organisms reproduce, but they have different ways of doing it.
The Aspen trees that pervade the mountains of Utah clone themselves.
Offspring grow as shoots from the roots of more mature trees, creating growths that are really the same tree grown over and over again.
Some worms, on the other hand, create their next generations in a different way.
There's a whole class of worms known as planaria.
They reproduce by attaching the back of their body to a rock and stretching themselves out until they literally tear themselves in two.
And then each of the two halves produce a full worm.
Nature offers myriad ways for life to begin.
But the one that fascinates Maureen is the way it happens for you and me.
And, no, it doesn't involve a stork.
So, human life comes into existence in just a fraction of a second.
You have a human egg and a human sperm, and their sole purpose in life is to find each other and fuse.
So, they come together, and in that one instant, you create a new kind of cell -- a one-celled human embryo.
This new cell has its own genetic code, its own DNA, that is a unique mixture of the egg and the sperm.
And within this single cell, there's a complete plan for development.
Development doesn't create that information.
It's there from the very beginning.
From her understanding of embryology, Maureen concludes that the life of a unique human individual begins within the 1/4 of a second it takes the sperm and the egg to unite.
That single-celled embryo contains an elaborate instruction manual with all of the information needed to create a human being.
You can think of it like a camping tent that builds itself.
So, our tent is self-assembling because it has all of the parts it needs to put itself together and because it has a set of instructions built into it that allow it to assemble into its final state.
Life is like this tent, only a billion times more complex.
After the single-celled embryo is formed, it takes a journey down the fallopian tubes to the uterus, where it begins the process of cell division, from 2 cells to 4 to 8 to 16 and so on.
After about one week, the embryo arrives at the uterine wall and implants itself.
A week later, the cells of the embryo begin to reorganize themselves into a primitive body.
After three weeks, the beginning of the nervous system is in place.
As days go on, cells continue to multiply, blood vessels form, the heart starts to beat, the backbone takes shape, arms and legs begin to bulge out.
During that time, the formation of the brain begins.
The cells and tissues of the embryo undergo these amazingly complex cellular gymnastics to give rise to structures, organs, complex relationships that turn that flat embryo into something that has form.
Maureen's biological understanding of the development of a human embryo leaves her with little doubt about when a new human life begins.
We all trace our own origins back to this single cell that came into existence at sperm-egg fusion.
It's something we should try to understand as a process of self-discovery, as a process of understanding our natures.
This is where we began.
But not all scientists trace an individual's origins back to just two cells.
In fact, some scientists believe within one individual there could be the ghosts of multiple lives, that life on earth is an unbreakable chain of events where one generation and the next are blurred together.
When I was a kid, I would go and visit my grandfather, and he used to play chess, and I would go and watch him, and I grew up learning to play with him Pawn to G-4.
and then my father also taught my son, and now my son and I play.
I think there's an interesting parallel between chess that was passed from one generation to another, and what we know biologically now is the passage of cells between generations.
Hilary Gammill from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center believes individual lives are more interwoven than we ever imagined.
She wonders if inside all of us there are traces of our relatives, dating back generations.
My area of focus is on the exchange of cells between a mother and fetus during pregnancy.
The classic textbooks used to state that there was absolutely no contact between the fetal blood and the maternal blood -- they were just protected in separate compartments.
For years, scientists thought when the placenta forms, it acts as an impenetrable barrier between the mother and the fetus, so nothing as large as a foreign cell with foreign genes could pass through -- baby's DNA stays within the baby, and mom's DNA stays with the mom.
By peering into the bloodstreams of mothers, Hilary and her team have discovered something remarkable.
When they sampled just a teaspoon of blood from the mothers, they found dozens and dozens of foreign cells floating around, cells from the mothers' babies.
So, we actually understand now that throughout pregnancy, there is bidirectional exchange of information cells and DNA between the mother and the fetus.
Hilary's work shows the placenta is not at all impenetrable.
It's more like a sieve.
There are miniscule holes that let cells out and let cells in.
These foreign cells can survive in our bodies for decades.
It's an exchange that happens not only between mother and fetus.
Cells from other relatives may sneak in, too.
It is theoretically possible that we could have cells that are exchanged from multiple different sources -- you know, older siblings and certainly mothers and fetuses, but past generations, as well.
When a mother acquires cells from a fetus, she could pass on these baby cells to her next child.
A younger sibling could have cells from the body of an older sibling.
These cells are more than just a curiosity.
They can act as soldiers in the body and combat disease Those cells can be active against cancer cells that develop in the recipient.
But not all of these exchanged cells protect and defend.
When our immune system detects these foreign cells in the bloodstream, it may decide to attack them.
These small numbers of foreign cells that are persistent in an individual are associated with disease states, like autoimmune diseases like systemic sclerosis.
The exchange of cells may have both positive and negative consequences for the health of the individuals involved.
The presence of cells from our relatives could change the course of our entire lives, making us all more interconnected than we ever thought possible.
Understanding that cells are exchanged commonly between individuals, I think, blurs the borders between those individuals so that the beginning of one life and the end of another life are a little bit less clear.
The life of some parts of our bodies actually begins before our sperm and egg have ever met, but one doctor in Stockholm wants to push the beginning of life in the other direction.
He believes we cannot be alive until we know we are alive.
When does human life begin? In this age of in vitro fertilization and prenatal medicine, it's a question that scientists and doctors struggle to answer every day.
Perhaps there's another way to approach the question.
How do you know if someone is home? You knock on the door, see if someone answers.
When Dr.
Hugo Lagercrantz was a younger man, his life was stressful.
He was the director of the neonatal intensive care unit at the Astrid Lindgren Children's Hospital in Stockholm, where he monitored fetuses and newborn babies.
Fetal monitoring was quite new at that time.
There were a lot of false alarms, so it was distressing.
But Hugo's patients experienced far more stress than he ever did -- not the mothers, the babies.
Being born is the most stressful event in life, particularly if you're born in the natural way.
When we are born, we're taken from our warm, safe womb and thrown into the world.
It's the most dramatic day of our lives, but it's a day we don't even remember.
This made Hugo wonder, "When do babies become aware of what's going on? When does consciousness begin?" He thinks we can look for clues by looking at fish.
Now there is a new law in Sweden that you're not allowed to use hooks when you're fishing.
The idea is that they think that the fish may be conscious and suffer, and certainly the fish reacts to pain, but I don't think the fish is conscious about pain.
It's more kind of a reflex.
According to Hugo, fish cannot experience the psychological aspect of pain because they lack the brain circuitry called thalamocortical connections.
Thank you.
Thalamocortical connections operate like a switchboard in the human brain.
Whenever we see, hear, touch, smell, or taste something, electrical signals go from our sensory organs to the cortex so our brains can process what we experience in the world.
These thalamocortical connections are crucial for consciousness because we believe that consciousness -- at least high consciousness -- is localized in the cortex, and if what you see, what you hear, what you sense doesn't reach the cortex, then you cannot be conscious about it.
Hugo is now a neonatal researcher and studies when human brains develop these connections.
When does the first spark of consciousness happen? Donato, a 4-day-old full-term baby, is here to help Hugo find out.
There are several criteria for consciousness.
One is being awake and then to be aware of your body and then, of course, to be aware what you see and hear and smell, et cetera.
Hugo and his team connect Donato to an instrument that measures blood flow in his brain.
When Donato is exposed to certain stimuli, Hugo can tell if the baby's brain is receiving signals and processing the outside world.
Milk is a scent Donato is used to, which is why he shows little blood flow.
Vanilla, on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise, causing the blood flow in the brain to spike.
With vanilla, it indicates that the baby reacted in the cortex to this smell.
When Hugo gives Donato a whiff of a toxic odor, like acetone, he has a very negative reaction.
His blood flow goes down, even below where he started before he smelled the milk.
It tells us that the baby seems to be conscious of the good and bad smell, which, I think, is very important from an evolutionary point of view.
For survival, I mean, you must be able to differentiate between what is good for you and what is poisonous or not good for you.
Hugo's study proves that even a 4-day-old baby is already conscious, but what about before we reach full-term? Testing for consciousness in fetuses is too invasive with current medical technology, so Hugo tries to get clues by studying premature infants born as young as 22 weeks.
I would say that after 25, 26 weeks that they seem to have some degree of consciousness, but before that, there are very few signs that they are conscious.
Hugo's research has led him to believe that a baby cannot be conscious until it is about 25 weeks old.
So, is this when life begins? I think before consciousness has developed, you are not a person, actually.
I think this is the time when life begins.
But one child psychologist thinks the beginning of life comes much later later than you could ever imagine.
Mark Twain once wrote, "Man is the only animal that blushes or needs to.
" Blushing is a uniquely human reaction, one that stems from our high level of self-awareness, but babies don't blush.
It's something they have to learn.
Does human life only truly begin when we become self-conscious? Philippe Rochat is a child psychologist at Emory University.
He has spent his career embarrassing himself in the name of science.
So, if I have my sticker on the forehead and I see people giving me looks, okay, I'm gonna start to be unsettled and concerned.
I mean, something is wrong about myself.
I think that to be human is to be concerned about reputation.
At the psychological and cultural level, life begins, indeed, in humans with the emergence of self-consciousness -- blushing, embarrassment, and shame.
Humans have developed a social brain.
We are the only species that do things like wear clothes and jewelry.
Monkeys don't wear makeup.
We are the only species that is profoundly concerned with how the world sees us.
According to Philippe, only when a child develops this concern is he fully human and psychologically alive.
Come in.
Philippe is the head of the Emory Infant and Child Lab, where he is trying to detect when children become aware of how they are perceived by the world.
You can sit here.
He says a first sign is when a child feels the pressure to go along with a crowd.
Meet 1-year-old Booker.
Hey, Booker, we're gonna play.
Philippe and Booker's mother have pink stickers on their foreheads.
Look -- this is goo-goo.
So, we create this social norm.
Then we place the mark on the kid's head unbeknownst to him, surreptitiously, and we look at the child's reaction when he sees that he, too, has a mark on the forehead.
If Booker's brain has developed an awareness of what other people think of him, he will leave the sticker on his head to fit in with the others but Booker is more concerned with getting the pesky sticker off his head than he is with fitting in.
Okay, Kayden, are you comfortable there, huh? But when Philippe tries the same test on 4-year-old Kayden, he gets a very different reaction.
Kayden basically freezes in front of his own image.
He noticed that we all have a sticker on the forehead, and he leaves the sticker on.
So, there's this idea of conformity.
They care about their own image and self-presentation.
This is something that emerges by two to three years of age.
It's a big milestone, but Philippe's research has shown that even a 3-year-old is not yet fully self-aware.
What?! Paper on my head? There is still another level of psychological development to reach.
I have some cups here.
I think they are beautiful.
This is 4-year-old Sidney.
I'm gonna build something with them.
Sidney watches as Philippe builds what he is calling the most beautiful sculpture in the world.
Whoa! But it's very fragile, huh? I'm not sure it's gonna hold, but I'm gonna get some glue to put the cups together.
So, don't touch it, okay? I'll be right back.
As Sidney patiently waits for Philippe to return with glue to secure the precious work of art, Philippe secretly pulls a transparent fish wire that is connected to a bottom cup.
And the question is, is to what extent the child will show concern that he's gonna be seen as responsible for the collapsing of the sculpture.
Sidney is not fazed by the tragic collapse because he does not care if he looks like the culprit.
Everything okay? Oh! What happened? Did you touch it? No.
He's not concerned with how Philippe will perceive him.
When Philippe plays the same trick on 5-year-old Milo That was scary.
he takes action and tries to rebuild the pyramid before Philippe returns.
And what we've seen with Milo and other 5-year-olds is the great concern about how are they gonna be perceived and judged, which is a huge step in the development of consciousness.
Philippe's tests chart the development of a fully conscious brain.
Just as a fetus develops in stages from a single cell to a baby over the course of nine months, consciousness in the brain grows in stages, too.
Philippe believes consciousness comes to full-term after about five years What happened? It just fell by itself.
How is that possible? and to him, it's the mark of when we are truly alive.
Why don't we put it back together? What it means to be alive? I think it's not to be a robot and not to be a machine.
To be alive is more than sensing the world, but to be alive is to feel the world.
To say that a child's life does not begin until he becomes self-conscious has radical implications.
A 4-year-old is not alive, but a newborn piece of machinery might be If it can think on its own.
Even a child can tell that a spider is alive and a rock is not but what if a lifeless object became a life-form? Can life begin inside something that's dead? Good afternoon.
Thank you for coming.
I'm here to do a presentation on Project Annabelle.
Kate Izhikevich is on a serious mission.
She has a plan to build the first ever living machine.
I've always wanted a chihuahua, and I've always had a thing that I wanted to name it -- Annabelle.
She is facing her toughest critic yet -- renowned computational neuroscientist Eugene Izhikevich, also known as dad.
I decided that, what if I could make a dog that was robotic? Kate has been asking me for a real dog since she was three years old, and for the last two years, she has been asking me for a robotic dog.
So, no mess.
It eats and poops out batteries.
Kate thinks that Project Annabelle is possible because I do computational neuroscience and I build artificial nervous systems for robots.
I hope Project Annabelle will become my dad's first priority.
Thank you.
Kate thinks her dad is the best man for the job.
Eugene has built the most detailed computer model of the human brain -- and almost 1 quadrillion synapses.
His ultimate goal is to create consciousness in an artificial nervous system.
He thinks it could be the beginning of a new life-form, one never before seen on earth.
I don't believe that consciousness is something that only has to be part of a human brain.
I think we can create computer programs for robots that possess this property.
Eugene and his team think they have found a way to do this.
Instead of giving robots step-by-step instructions with a program to make them move, they want their robots to figure out how to move and learn on their own, just like living, conscious beings.
They are building their robots' electronic brains modeled on biological ones.
Somebody says, "What's the most important concept in the brain?" I would say it's the neuron.
Neurons are the brain cells that help conscious, biological beings, like these dogs, learn.
We may think biscuits are the key to a dog's learning, but it's actually the neurons in his brain.
When a dog learns how to fetch, the neurons in his brain fire spikes of electricity that create pathways.
As he practices more and more, his neurons fire faster and faster and electricity flows more efficiently down the new pathway.
Eugene and his team of roboticists are building artificial networks of neurons that fire spikes of electricity and create favored pathways just like the neurons in a biological brain.
They wanted to see what would happen if they wired these spiking neurons to a robotic body.
Could a robot learn how to move and become aware of its body and its environment all by itself? Could a robot become conscious? Our approach to robotics is quite different from the standard approach.
We don't program robots.
We endow them with artificial nervous systems and their own experiences.
For example, a robot starts by moving their hands and moving their necks and just exploring their own body, and after that, users -- people -- can teach the robots the same way as they teach dogs and cats different tricks -- with reward and punishment.
Eugene and his team use different body shapes to see how many kinds of movements a robot can learn.
This robot is trying to learn how to stand up.
Its artificial brain is telling its body how to move.
They look alive, and some of the demos that I show to my daughter look so creepy that she's said that we're torturing a baby robot.
By endowing Eugene's artificial brains with a body and letting them explore the world, these robots acquire experience They development behaviors.
Are they becoming alive? You can imagine a situation when you have a set of robots having access to raw materials.
You can even hypothesize that it's possible for these robots to kind of create copies of themselves, and then such a community of robots would act as a life system.
Perhaps the day will come when one of Eugene's robots will feel emotion, maybe even blush.
Artificial life will then be indistinguishable from our own but building robots may not be the only way to create new life on earth.
One scientist in Denmark is searching for the perfect recipe.
He thinks the ingredients to produce new life-forms are right under our noses.
If we build robots that become self-aware, then humanity will have created an entirely new form of life.
It will be the first time in billions of years that something nonliving became living, but there might be another way to create brand-new life-forms, not in a robot, but in a petri dish.
Martin Hanczyc from the University of Southern Denmark is trying to figure out when life begins by going back to a time when life was simpler.
As a biochemist, he knows that in order to understand life, he has to look at the simplest form that appeared on earth a very long time ago.
When we think about the origin of life, there must've been a very interesting transition from material that we wouldn't consider living that gave rise to organize what we would call life or biology.
So, it's a big mystery, and it's a fascinating mystery.
How can inanimate objects become animate? What sparked the transition from nonliving to living? Martin's work as a biochemist inspires him to ask that question wherever he looks.
So, what we're looking at here is an old windmill.
It's from, I think, the 1830s, and we are considering whether an artificial construction like this has any similarity to living systems.
Living systems have a body, they have a metabolism, and they have some sort of inheritable information.
Clearly, this windmill has a body.
It has a metabolism that takes wind energy from the outside and uses it as power, and it has inheritable information.
There is a blueprint for this that has information about how to put the parts together to make a functional windmill.
Humans can use these blueprints and create modern windmills.
In a sense, you could say that windmills have evolved and multiplied.
However, something important is missing.
Windmills cannot grow all by themselves.
They rely on humans to assemble them, but the first forms of life must've assembled themselves.
Martin wanted to see if he could find a recipe made of nonliving materials that could build itself a body and become alive.
We think one of the key steps in the origin of life is actually the self-assembly of molecules together.
Martin wondered what kind of chemicals might behave like this.
He realized he had to look no further than the kitchen pantry -- oil.
As we all know, when you combine oil and water, they don't mix, but the combination forces the oil molecules to self-assemble and form big droplets.
These are the bodies Martin decided to use for his lab-made life.
So, when we make an oil droplet in a dish, nothing happens.
You just get a nice, spherical oil drop that just sits there in the dish, but the key was how to, then, power some sort of movement of the system.
We wanted to put in a metabolism.
Martin injected his oil droplets with molecules that break down into soap bubbles when they encounter water.
The bubbles spread from the middle of the droplets to the edge, pushing them around like a motor.
It's a working metabolism.
You could say it's almost alive.
We were very excited when we saw this because not only does it work, but it worked rather quickly.
Martin has successfully created a self-assembling body that can metabolize and move on its own.
Next, he arranged for a little oil-droplet soiree.
Could he mimic the process of reproduction? And it's interesting that when we put more than one droplet into an experiment, they tend to follow one another, almost like a dance.
The oil droplets are being social, and we all know what a little mingling and some good chemistry can lead to.
Each droplet is giving out a chemical signal, and therefore the droplets are able to communicate with each other through this kind of chemical language.
But even if one of Martin's droplets meets "the one," what about inheritable information? Do they have a genetic blueprint? We are thinking of how to address this question of inheritance and genetic information.
One way to do it is to take some lessons from biology and put something in like RNA or DNA, but we're thinking of more primitive ways of understanding the emergence of information.
Martin is still working on recipes for inheritable information, and he's on the brink of creating a living organism from nonliving materials.
If there is a line between the living and nonliving systems, then it must be a very blurry line.
From artificial cells to artificial neurons, scientists are creating new life with their own hands, but one former physicist thinks there could be another version of life arising, growing out of the collective experience of all of humanity.
Life on earth began as a simple cycle of chemical reactions in a bubbling, primordial pond.
Four billion years later, those chemical reactions have spread across the planet and have become so complex that they can think and talk, like me, but something new is happening.
Connections between computers have spread worldwide, forming a dense electronic web, and now these global networks -- one electronic, one chemical -- are interacting.
A new life could be about to begin on a scale unlike anything earth has ever known.
Evolutionary cyberneticist Francis Heylighen at the free University of Brussels thinks humanity is giving birth, and this baby is big.
If we look at global society, at all the seven billion people on this planet, people become more and more connected into a coherent being.
The Internet gives you immediate access to all the important ideas.
Nowadays, ideas travel the ocean.
They can do that with almost the speed of light.
That means the speed is comparable to the speed that the neurons in our brain use to talk to each other.
The global network that connects all of us facilitates massive amounts of information sharing, information that has unveiled secrets that explain how our universe works.
The Large Hadron Collider at Cern, for example, could not have detected the elusive Higgs boson without the ability to share tremendous amounts of data across the globe at great speeds.
If Galileo could immediately have talked with all his colleagues, I'm sure that science would've developed much more quickly.
Francis and his team of computer scientists have invented a mathematical model to measure what the Internet is doing.
Their goal is to find out whether it is becoming a global brain.
In the mathematical model, like in all scientific models, you make a kind of simplification of reality.
Instead of having a real person, you will have a small computer program that in some way behaves like a real person.
Francis' models are like global fMRIs, where people act like the neurons in a giant brain.
Just as neurons learn by firing back and forth, people fire information to one another electronically.
Francis believes as connections between people increase in number and strength, our global brain will become more intelligent.
You see that the network of connections -- it's getting better at what it needs to do.
New connections are created, old connections that are no longer useful disappear, and the whole thing is constantly self-organizing.
Francis' work has shown him that our global brain is adapting, learning.
Humanity and the Internet are merging to become a giant, living being.
He compares this beginning of global life to the beginning of life for his 9-year-old daughter, Nia.
This is a picture of Nia in the womb.
She had a rudimentary brain, but the brain was basically a bunch of cells.
There was no interconnection -- learning and experiencing over the months and the years to find what are the right connections.
She started out as this bunch of cells, but then she gradually developed into a smart, intelligent, adventurous little girl that likes to climb in trees.
A single cell in Nia's body doesn't know what to do on its own.
It is the coordinated effort of the billions of neurons in her brain that tells her leg muscles how to climb a tree trunk and tells her arm muscles how to propel herself from branch to branch.
Francis believes humans and the web are working together in the same way.
If life begins with a brain, then humanity has just climbed to a new level of awareness.
It is the beginning of consciousness at the global level that we see with the emergence of the Internet.
So, it is a kind of a beginning of life.
A human being cannot survive without a brain, a brain cannot survive without a body, and now the body of humanity and the brain of the web may be evolving into a superintelligent organism.
Could it be the beginning of a new form of life? When does life begin? We now know there are several answers to this question.
When sperm and egg meet, they create a new and unique genetic blueprint.
Life takes another leap forward when creatures become conscious, be they babies, toddlers, or robots.
And when all those individual life-forms merge, becoming part of a global superorganism, life on earth will advance one more step, and perhaps, one day, that new life-form will ask where its life began and what miracles are yet to be born.