Updated: April 6, 2020
Molecular biology is a fascinating thing. Combine it with computers, and you get yourself a platform for studying the evolution of life. Not an easy one, and scientists worldwide have been at this problem for many years now, trying to understand and replicate the environmental conditions that led to the creation of life on Earth.
If you're fascinated by the concepts of amino acids, RNA, cellular division and alike, you can partake in the discovery journey with Biogenesis, a free, cross-platform, Java-based visual microbiology simulator. The idea is simple: you get a primordial soup, and you get to control it, studying and creating organisms of your own. Sounds like good, solid educational fun. Let there be light. I mean Java.
Commence the evolution!
Biogenesis comes with a simple yet clever interface. You start with a medium that can already support single-cell life. That's a given. I'm not sure if there's a way to change the starting conditions, but you do have the option to control oxygen and carbon in this medium (a liquid if you will).
The simulation starts with a bunch of existing organisms. Each family is denoted by a different shape and color. As conditions change, and the organisms interact with the environment and among themselves, there will be changes, including life, death, mitosis, and alike. Some organisms will have faster metabolism than others, some will be able to infect others (as viruses or bacteria), and their rate of reproduction will be different.
It's the start of the world as we don't know it
Biogenesis lets you control various aspect of cellular life, like metabolism, oxygen and carbon cycles, mutations, environmental pressure, and more. Of course, you do need some understanding of these concepts and how they affect the simulation if you want to attain meaningful results or perhaps validate a theory, but you can still play without much rigor, just for fun.
Furthermore, you can tweak the world a little bit. You can change the metabolic and genetic parameters, so you can see how they affect your organisms. Feed them, weaken them, kill them perhaps. Again, you can do this randomly, or try to be scientific about it. But it does give you the ability to study important changes and their effect on evolution. For instance, if the energy release rate changes, how does that alter your world? Maybe you get a mass extinction? Or a boom in the population?
Then, Biogenesis also comes with a statistics window, allowing you to check the effects of your experiments. For example, you may want to see what happens at time = 0, 5, 10, whatever after each major change, and which organisms are most remarkable in the particular settings (the most successful, the most infectious).
I tried a few semi-intelligent changes. I noticed that feeding oxygen typically caused a bloom in metabolic rate, which is expected, but it would also kill many different types of organisms, which is again quite expected. Every time, the world would settle into a new equilibrium, and this is another important aspect of the simulation. You can examine the long-term harmonization of the environment after massive changes.
The simulation allows you to save your state - and even export it and share it with other Biogenesis users. I did notice a drop in framerate and higher CPU usage as the simulation progressed and became more complex. You do need a fair deal of resources if you want to play with the software in a serious manner. But it's quite fascinating, and even a little addictive.
Biogenesis is not your everyday program, and it will most likely appeal to a tiny, tiny niche of users with some scientific inclination. However, it's a very capable and fascinating educational tool, as it touches on many important aspects of life without forcing you to go through four years of university somewhere, not that you shouldn't. It's smartly designed, it has the right dose of simple and complex, and it entices the brain to think in just the right way.
The one thing I'm missing are the actual algorithms in the background, which determine how applicable Biogenesis is for real-life simulations. Then again, it allows us to contemplate hypothetical early-life scenarios, and maybe gain understanding into why certain organisms are more prevalent, and how they have come to dominate life. Anyway, definitely worth testing. Begin.
P.S. In case you had a "brilliant" thought, this article has nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic. Written months and months ago. There.