Science

Scientists make first step towards bringing life to inorganic matter

Scientists make first step tow...
The iCHELLs created by a team from the University of Glasgow could be the first step on the road towards creating "inorganic life" (Image: University of Glasgow)
The iCHELLs created by a team from the University of Glasgow could be the first step on the road towards creating "inorganic life" (Image: University of Glasgow)
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The iCHELLs created by a team from the University of Glasgow could be the first step on the road towards creating "inorganic life" (Image: University of Glasgow)
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The iCHELLs created by a team from the University of Glasgow could be the first step on the road towards creating "inorganic life" (Image: University of Glasgow)

All life on Earth is carbon-based, which has led to the widespread assumption that any other life that may exist in the universe would also be carbon-based. Excluding the possibility of elements other than carbon forming the basis of life is often referred to as carbon chauvinism and researchers at the University of Glasgow are looking to overcome this bias and provide new insights into evolution by attempting to create "life" from carbon-free, inorganic chemicals. They've now taken the first tentative steps towards this goal with the creation of inorganic-chemical-cells, or iCHELLS.

Just like biological cells, the cells created by Professor Lee Cronin, Gardiner Chair of Chemistry in the College of Science and Engineering, allow several chemical processes to be isolated within them. They can be compartmentalized by creating internal membranes that control the passage of materials and energy through them. The researchers say the cells, which can also store electricity, could potentially be used in all sorts of applications, such as sensors or to confine chemical reactions.

However, the ultimate goal of the project is to demonstrate that inorganic chemical compounds are capable of self-replicating and evolving, just like organic, biological carbon-based cells.

Prof Cronin says the current theory of evolution is really a special theory of evolution because it only applies only to organic biology. He says that if he and his team are successful in creating life from inorganic matter, it could lead to a general theory of evolution.

"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," said Prof Cronin. "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."

Prof Cronin gave a talk at TED Global earlier this year in Edinburgh where he said that if his team is successful in creating life while taking carbon out of the equation, it might reveal what other elements might be capable of producing life elsewhere in the universe and provide NASA with a better idea of what to look for in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The University of Glasgow team's paper "Modular Redox-Active Inorganic Chemical Cells: iCHELLs' is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

69 comments
Australian
Let me just say I hope they aren\'t funded by my taxes and ...........good luck! IF evolution is true and IF it took millions (if not billions of years) then these guys must surely be gamblers. Better odds by far putting the money into satellites to look at more places in space for other life forms, or for that matter, buying a lotto ticket! Better returns and better odds by a massive (some would say infinate) magnitude.
Adam Dixon
@Australian - lolwut
Back on planet earth; Wow this is looking good, looks like biological engineering is a future possibility game changer, maybe this century.
Brit
I\'d agree we generally only apply the theory of evolution to what we see (i.e. carbon-based life), but I wouldn\'t say say the theory of evolution is carbon-specific. It already is a general theory.
And, Australian, they\'ve clearly made a huge amount amount of progress already. I wouldn\'t be so certain. Your god of the gaps shrinks ever further ;-)
whuang86
I don\'t see how even in the success of this so called creation of life can prove abiogenesis to be possible.
http://groups.google.com/group/sci.skeptic/msg/c959e739f100f825?pli=1
Brandy Kroll
One step closer to the Zombie apocalypse!
Stewart Mitchell
Is that why the bible claims that Adam is made from dirt. Perhaps he will be silicon based life form.
Also, A crop circle implies silicon based humanoids exists.
Guero
If they are successful in this project, they will have proved that it didn\'t take intelligence to create life (lol sarcastically).
alcalde
Whuang86, if it\'s the creation of life from inorganic matter, then what is left to prove? It\'s certainly possible if it is in fact DONE.
But then, the last person I discussed this with dismissed abiogenesis because he\'d \"never seen rocks get up and start walking around\". I rebutted that I\'d never seen Eden on Google Earth. :-)
This is incredibly fascinating research, and in some ways overdue.
Jim Bowman
Lol we are going to invest countless man hours purposefully creating a non self replicating model of a cell, using the real self replicating organisms as a model by design. After doing this we will be justified in concluding life arose spontaneously by chance from inatimate matter by some random process.
Does this prove that humans are injection molded because mannequins are? Sad the utter lack of logic employed is too often uncritically accepted but then again they will become vain in their imaginations was foretold. Miller and Urey surely will be enthused.
m0thman
The Australian makes me laugh (and cringe). It\'s not really and IF and it\'s a more credible idea than the concept of the big imaginary being in the sky with the pearly gates - or any other bedtime story (depends on your religion I suppose).
Humans exploring their world and pushing the boundaries of their knowledge, now that\'s more interesting than dreaming up faery stories to scare the little children isn\'t it?