Scientists haven't created life in the laboratory yet, but when they do, they'll be off and running. Case in point is a University of Glasgow team led by Professor Lee Cronin, the Regius Chair of Chemistry, which has developed the world's first chemical system capable of evolving as part of a project that aims at creating synthetic "life" without DNA.

Building on Cronin's previous work on creating a synthetic basis for life that isn't based on carbon, the chemical evolution uses an open-source robotic "aid," which is derived from a cheap 3D printer. The robot is used to create droplets of oil in a water-filled Petri dish. These droplets are made of a mixture of four chemical compounds with each droplet slightly different from the others to create 225 different compositions and resulting in behaviors that convert chemical energy to kinetic energy as they act like primitive machines. The robot monitors them using a video camera.

The evolution bit comes in as the robot deposits the droplets in groups called "populations." These are then observed for signs of division, movement, and vibration, and then ranked according to how they match a predetermined criteria. Those deemed to be fittest are used to populate a second generation of droplets and the selection begins again. According to the team, after 20 generations, the droplets began to mimic natural selection as their behavior became more stable.

"This is the first time that an evolvable chemical system has existed outside of biology," says Cronin. "Biological evolution has given rise to enormously complex and sophisticated forms of life, and our robot-driven form of evolution could have the potential to do something similar for chemical systems. This initial phase of research has shown that the system we've designed is capable of facilitating an evolutionary process, so we could in the future create models to perform specific tasks, such as splitting, then seeking out other droplets and fusing with them. We're also keen to explore in future experiments how the emergence of unexpected features, functions and behaviors might be selected for."

The teams results were published in Nature Communications.