Science

Glasgow scientists create chemical evolution

Glasgow scientists create chem...
The University of Glasgow team have developed a chemical version of evolution (Image: Shutterstock)
The University of Glasgow team have developed a chemical version of evolution (Image: Shutterstock)
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The University of Glasgow team have developed a chemical version of evolution (Image: Shutterstock)
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The University of Glasgow team have developed a chemical version of evolution (Image: Shutterstock)

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.

Source: University of Glasgow

7 comments
Koolski
How is this not like breeding dogs for specific characteristics? Then an intelligence selects the offspring with the most desired traits and breeds them? This is so NOT "evolution." At best this is intelligence guided natural selection, but that's not even true because intelligence guided and "natural" selection are antithetical of one another!
For true evolution to occur, not only does the information need to get re-ordered and mutated, but also new information must in some way get introduced into the system to build towards a "higher" form.
ChiTownBullet
I have to agree Koolski. If they were to dump all of these chemicals into a pool at the same time and out of that pool some sort of life would emerge, that would be evolution. If you have a robot manipulating groups of chemicals to some desired effects end then I don't think you could call that any sort of evolutionary process.
HeyBoas
Koolski and ChiTownBullet (like the names btw), notice it said "world's first chemical system capable of evolving as part of a project". Key word is capable. -- Kyle Boas Founder and Producer of boasish.com
kalqlate
@Koolski, @ChiTownBullet - You misunderstand, mainly because you brushed over this key part: "According to the team, after 20 generations, the droplets began to mimic natural selection as their behavior became more stable," and this further part, "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." ALL TOGETHER, the robot, the selection process, the droplets and their reactions are THE SYSTEM that operates analogously to evolving biological systems. Evolving biological systems have a natural or nature-derived selection process. Perhaps you're balking because the selection process here is synthetic. True, it is synthetic, but that does not mean that the system taken together as a whole is not self-evolving.
Peter Kinnon
These researches are interesting but are something of a red herring as far as reflecting the characteristics of biology in any meaningful way
For reasons laid out many years ago by Robert Shapiro in 'Origins, a Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth" simplistic models of molecular evolution loosely based on the primeval soup scenario such as this just do not cut the mustard.
Neither do the "cell first" models. The many and varied proposals are riddled with physical and chemical inadequacies that make the probabilities of their occurrence vanishingly small. Flow, concentration and energy gradients are among the numerous parameters which are wanting.
In recent decades, however, the discovery of the sub-marine alkaline vents have identified conditions in which these conditions are met. The existence of myriad cavities in the superstructures which could serve as matrices for proto-cells has at last provided a plausible and coherent scenario for the co-evolution of cell and its metabolic processes. At the same time bringing the probability issues within reasonable bounds
This model of abiogenesis is explored in chapter 9 of my latest book "The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill"
StWils
First, I find this research fascinating and potentially scary in equal measure. I think it is clear that early Earth conditions can be shown to naturally produce self sustaining life. The deep sea vents are showing that and showing the potential for evolution. The scary part comes into focus should some of this get stable enough to "survive" in ambient conditions and then through some likely stupid accident actually get loose. Something like thirty years ago there were concerns raised about a catfish farm raising several kinds of very aggressive Chinese catfish.. The defense was that the farm was 75 miles from the nearest outside river. They never imagined that a springtime flood in Louisiana might breach containment. Imagine that, flooding in Louisiana!! Those escaped species have regularly moved north along the Mississippi river and it's tributaries and out competed all native fish species. Despite valiant efforts these very aggressive catfish may soon cross the small canal linking the headwaters of the Mississippi and the Great Lakes through Chicago. There literally is an electric fence in the canal and still the catfish are pushing North. Science is important but it should not just be let to run free and unsupervised.