Scientists take first step towards creating 'inorganic life'

Sep 12, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists at the University of Glasgow say they have taken their first tentative steps towards creating 'life' from inorganic chemicals potentially defining the new area of 'inorganic biology'.

Professor Lee Cronin, Gardiner Chair of in the College of Science and Engineering, and his team have demonstrated a new way of making inorganic-chemical-cells or iCHELLS.

Prof Cronin said: “All on earth is based on organic biology (i.e. carbon in the form of amino acids, nucleotides, and sugars etc) but the inorganic world is considered to be inanimate.

“What we are trying do is create self-replicating, evolving inorganic that would essentially be alive. You could call it inorganic biology.”

The cells can be compartmentalised by creating internal membranes that control the passage of materials and energy through them, meaning several processes can be isolated within the same cell – just like biological cells.

The researchers say the cells, which can also store electricity, could potentially be used in all sorts of applications in medicine, as sensors or to confine chemical reactions.

The research is part of a project by Prof Cronin to demonstrate that inorganic chemical compounds are capable of self-replicating and evolving – just as organic, biological carbon-based cells do.

The research into creating ‘inorganic life’ is in its earliest stages, but Prof Cronin believes it is entirely feasible.

Prof Cronin said: “The grand aim is to construct complex chemical cells with life-like properties that could help us understand how life emerged and also to use this approach to define a new technology based upon evolution in the material world – a kind of inorganic living technology.

“Bacteria are essentially single-cell micro-organisms made from organic chemicals, so why can’t we make micro-organisms from inorganic chemicals and allow them to evolve?

“If successful this would give us some incredible insights into evolution and show that it’s not just a biological process. It would also mean that we would have proven that non carbon-based life could exist and totally redefine our ideas of design.”

The paper ‘Modular Redox-Active Inorganic Chemical Cells: iCHELLs’ is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.


Lee Cronin: Making matter come alive. A video of Professor Cronin’s TED lecture

Explore further: Researchers open possible avenue to better electrolyte for lithium ion batteries

More information: Modular Redox-Active Inorganic Chemical Cells: iCHELLs, DOI:10.1002/anie.201105068

Provided by University of Glasgow

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antialias_physorg
2.8 / 5 (12) Sep 12, 2011
While interesting this sounds decidedly risky. Engineering biological entities is alraedy risky - but at least there you have natural control mechanisms and competition between the newly created organisms and the established ones.

But if we actually manage to let loose inorganic, replicating cells then we could be in deep trouble because there is no such buffer/balancing system, yet.
Could be the dreaded 'grey goo' scenario. Im with Drexler on that one: "We cannot afford certain types of accidents."
Mahal_Kita
5 / 5 (6) Sep 12, 2011
While interesting this sounds decidedly risky. Engineering biological entities is alraedy risky - but at least there you have natural control mechanisms and competition between the newly created organisms and the established ones.

But if we actually manage to let loose inorganic, replicating cells then we could be in deep trouble because there is no such buffer/balancing system, yet.
Could be the dreaded 'grey goo' scenario. Im with Drexler on that one: "We cannot afford certain types of accidents."


We will ultimately create our own evolutionary competition.
Eikka
4.6 / 5 (14) Sep 12, 2011
But if we actually manage to let loose inorganic, replicating cells then we could be in deep trouble because there is no such buffer/balancing system, yet.


How about the fact, that most of the materials they require to live are so rare and locked up so tightly into other compounds (think, aluminium) that without us feeding them all the time, they would simply starve.

Aka. the reason why life didn't use that chemistry in the first place.

For example, if you made an inorganic bacterium that requires rare earth metals to survive, then you've basically created a being that depends on cigarette lighter flints. Where is it going to find enough stuff to eat?
antialias_physorg
4.6 / 5 (7) Sep 12, 2011
For example, if you made an inorganic bacterium that requires rare earth metals to survive, then you've basically created a being that depends on cigarette lighter flints. Where is it going to find enough stuff to eat?

The problem arises once you have self replicators that you cannot contain (i.e. that have 'escaped into the wild') and once those replicators mutate.

While we may produce some that would need, e.g., yttrium to function what happens if the same setup also functions with iron (or any other abundant material)?

There are many technologies where we are substituting cheap/ubiquitous materials for materials which were hard to come by (e.g. the platinum in fuel cells or the rare earth materials in some battery types). Or even the replacement phosphorous by arsenic in DNA (though this is not certain).

At first we didn't know this was possible. So how can we be sure that such replacement isn't possible in artificial cells?
Jeddy_Mctedder
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 12, 2011
that without us feeding them all the time, they would simply starve.
Aka. the reason why life didn't use that chemistry in the first place.


the whole idea of 'nano-machining' , 'lab on a chip ' and systems self organizing science is to follow a pattern resembling an engineering convergence to
developing a set of nano-bacteria ( both inorganic and organic ) that are tailor engineered to provide us just about any complex substance given a) necessary base materials and energy requirements (abundant and mostly cheap) , as well as b) the 'programming'/'instructions'....with which to automatically accoplish this task with minial labor input.

some people think of this as the star treck devise the creates food instantaneously.
it will never be as robust as life itself but could be be profitable. think less big factories and more home 3d printers using a range of inputs besides 3-4 plastics.
Jeddy_Mctedder
2.3 / 5 (6) Sep 12, 2011
the outputs from the nano machines could be the final replicated substance you need, or itself an input to another machine --self replicating ---or otherwise ( like a 3d printer. ) .....

instead of inorganic life, you could use organic substances, ( detritus, wood, coal, carbon based plastics) , or inorganic ones that are not so much capable of self replication indefinitley, so much as a single transformation. ( the whole point is getting cheap-self directed substance phase changes out of materials. ) .
Eikka
4.4 / 5 (7) Sep 12, 2011

While we may produce some that would need, e.g., yttrium to function what happens if the same setup also functions with iron (or any other abundant material)?
(...)
At first we didn't know this was possible. So how can we be sure that such replacement isn't possible in artificial cells?


First, it would be exceedingly unlikely that our inorganic life could survive outside of the test tube for long enough to mutate because it can't find anything to eat. Secondly, the reaction potentials of many of the chemicals are such that the normal environment would be poisonous to the creatures. E.g. they would spontaneously combust in air and water because their cell membranes are made out of sodium.

And third, the most likely abundant substances that they'd try to substitute would be the same that are employed in organic chemistry: carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. Essentially, they would become organics in a roundabout way.
Eikka
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 12, 2011
Or even the replacement phosphorous by arsenic in DNA (though this is not certain).


This works because arsenic is chemically very similiar to phosphorous, so it fits right in to the DNA of the cell. It's probably always been that way, but arsenic happens to clash with some other functions that these cells don't have or don't need, so they are able to survive with arsenic where others can't.

Could you build multi-cellular life with arsenic? Probably not. It probably doesn't work because it prohibits the formation of some complex proteins and the most complex life you can evolve that way is pond scum.
that_guy
5 / 5 (2) Sep 12, 2011
The gray goo scenerio is exceedingly implausible. For nanobots, grey goo would be functionally implossible due to the complexity of chemistry and physics. The inorganic life scenario for gray goo is only marginally more plausible.

Cell biology is based on proteins, which are based on DNA. Essentially, the majority of your body that isn't water or fat is made of protiens, thousands of which that are chemically somewhat similar in structure to DNA.

In order to make inorganic life, you would have to create each version of a 'protein' from scratch. It is an enourmously difficult task.

Second, with an inorganic life with its own chemical bases, it would have universal weaknesses, just like cyanide or arsenic are toxic to most organic life. These weaknesses may not affect organic life in the same way.

Lastly, inorganic life is likely unsuited to the same environment as organic life. Even though a few extremophiles live on antartica, doesn't mean they make it green.
nxtr
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 12, 2011
we will birth our Oedipus and he/she/it will kill us. Case closed there is no other alternative.
TombSyphon2317
not rated yet Sep 13, 2011
nxtr

It's makes me really glad to have peoples like you around.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (1) Sep 13, 2011
First, it would be exceedingly unlikely that our inorganic life could survive outside of the test tube for long enough

One would be enough. And the point of having self replicators IS to use them outside the test tube at some point. And no setup can prevent accidental - or malevolent - spillage 100% of the time.

Secondly, the reaction potentials of many of the chemicals are such that the normal environment would be poisonous to the creatures.

As noted: Just one that happens to be spilled in an anoxic (or otherwise nonreactive environment) and from then on it can eat/bury down.

And third, the most likely abundant substances that they'd try to substitute would be the same that are employed in organic chemistry:

Which just turns our grey goo into black (or red) goo. Not an improvement. And certainly no better for containment purposes.
antialias_physorg
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2011
Could you build multi-cellular life with arsenic? Probably not. It probably doesn't work because it prohibits the formation of some complex proteins and the most complex life you can evolve that way is pond scum.

Inorganic replicators would be no more complicated than pond scum. Point being: we never thought that arsenic could - in theory - be a replacement. So if we build our inorganic cell e.g. with a terminal dependency on arsenic (believing that it won't replicate outside the presence of arsenic) we could have been in for a real shock when it suddenly feeds on ubiquitous phosphorous.

NOW we know about this interchangeability - but we hadn't suspected it not so long ago. The security offered by a 'Jurassic Park'* type of failsafe switch seems very low.

*In the movie Jurassic Park Dinosaurs were imbued with an inability to produce a certain protein - making them dependent on being fed said protein.
antialias_physorg
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 13, 2011
In order to make inorganic life, you would have to create each version of a 'protein' from scratch.

Who says that inorganic life needs to have these types of proteins? And even if: once it's self replicating there's no need any more to make them from scratch.

Second, with an inorganic life with its own chemical bases, it would have universal weaknesses, just like cyanide or arsenic are toxic to most organic life.

Certainly. But snice we don't have inorganic life on this planet (at least that we know of) there are no competitors. If the cells feed on ubiquitous materials then there would be an unchecked growth explosion.

Lastly, inorganic life is likely unsuited to the same environment as organic life.

If one feeds on the other we may be in big trouble. Or if it just feeds on stuff that we also need (e.g. atmospheric oxygen or H2O) or if it produces waste products that are toxic to us but not to it.
that_guy
3.8 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2011
@ antialias - I see what you did there - combining mine and Eikka's arguments to make it look like you're only responding to one person.

Inorganic life would need some equivilent of proteins and enzymes - essentially, chemicals that allow metabolism to work. It's that simple. Otherwise it doesn't reproduce. In order to take energy from the environment and reproduce requires a whole array of protiens and other compounds.

How many synthetic protiens not found in nature that actually functions have we created? One. And it was based on a protien that did the same function we wanted it to. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I am saying that it will be a very long time before we truly have the ability to create inorganic life. You seriously underestimate the complexity of this idea.

That said, I also believe you seriously underestimate the vulnerability of inorganic life in a world essentially created and dominated by organic biology.
antialias_physorg
3.8 / 5 (4) Sep 13, 2011
I see what you did there - combining mine and Eikka's arguments to make it look like you're only responding to one person.

That was not the intent...I just went down the list and responded to stuff that seemed to merit a response. I don't really look all that much at who posts stuff.

but I am saying that it will be a very long time before we truly have the ability to create inorganic life.

Agreed. That doesn't invalidate any argument I've made, though. I'm not saying that we are in danger of grey goo tomorrow - but that we should put some SERIOUS thought into the matter when we try to create inorganic replicators.

Certainly more serious than "We'll just include an off switch" or "We'll make it dependent on some ingredient we have to provide"
that_guy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 13, 2011
as far as my comment "I see what you did there" - i was just ribbing you just to mess with you.

I'm saying that due to the extreme difference in biology between organic and inorganic life, there is a high likelyhood that you could take a chemical that is benign or even necessary for regular life, and it would be toxic to inorganic life. And due to the nature of the extreme chemical differences that would arise between the two, a chemical environ that is ideal for one may be terrible for the other. And seeing as the chemical environ of the biosphere is suitable for organic life, the inorganic will likely have difficulty. This is a far bigger step than trying to replace phosphorus with arsenic.

All of that said, this is more theoretical work with some simpler concepts of inorganic life, rather than real effects. i think we're thinking too far out from the known variables to come to an accurate conclusion until quite a bit more research is done.
Wulfgar
4.5 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2011
I've always wanted a pet rock.

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