Biology

Artificial evolution aims to create life out of non-living matter

Artificial evolution aims to c...
A new study is attempting to recreate the conditions that allowed non-living molecules to transition into living cells
A new study is attempting to recreate the conditions that allowed non-living molecules to transition into living cells
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A new study is attempting to recreate the conditions that allowed non-living molecules to transition into living cells
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A new study is attempting to recreate the conditions that allowed non-living molecules to transition into living cells

Evolution is the generally-accepted answer to how life arose, but how did non-living matter transition into living organisms? A team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is trying to recreate the cradle of life, by gently rocking a combination of key minerals and organic molecules to see if certain chemical reactions give birth to life. If life emerges "easily" from these conditions, it could change our understanding of how common life might be across the universe.

Synthetic life has been created in a lab before. Back in 2010, scientists successfully created a brand-new bacteria by injecting a computer-designed genome into an existing cell, which was then able to replicate itself. A few years later, another team built artificial, self-assembling cell membranes, which could act like the "hardware" to house an artificial genome. More recently, researchers developed a semi-synthetic organism with extra genetic information in its DNA.

But if those scientists were essentially "playing God" by directly creating new life, the UW-Madison project is "playing Mother Nature" by trying to recreate the overall process of evolution itself.

The study of life's beginnings, or abiogenesis, has been ongoing for the better part of a century, and there are several theories for how non-living molecules first gave rise to living cells. Probably the best known is the idea of primordial soup, which suggests that when sources of energy, such as lightning or sunlight, interacted with Earth's early atmosphere, organic compounds would have formed and interacted with each other. These eventually gave rise to amino acids – the building blocks of life – and in turn, simple life forms.

But in the specific theory that the UW-Madison team is testing, those external energy sources aren't needed. Instead, organic compounds could have collected on the surface of iron pyrite (a mineral made of iron and sulfur), and these minerals could serve as the catalyst to kickstart early metabolism. That idea comes from the observation that iron-sulfur catalysts are still key to the function of modern cells, a possible time capsule for how that process got started.

The researchers mixed particles of iron pyrite and organic chemicals into vials, and attached them to a device that gently rocked them. The idea is that the chemicals will bind to the surface of the pyrite and, aided by the catalyst, begin replicating. Successful "populations" of the chemicals will then spread to other beads of the pyrite and continue to propagate.

The most effective and efficient colonies of the chemicals will spread across the most pyrite beads, and the team regularly moves some beads to new vials, allowing them to continue to expand. If it all sounds suspiciously like natural selection, that's kind of the point. Except here, the team calls it "neighborhood selection," since the process works on groups, instead of individuals which aren't easy to define in this situation.

"This community-level selection could have taken place before there were individuals with traits that were both heritable and variable," says Kalin Vetsigian, a researcher on the project. "If you have good communities, they will persist."

So far, the team has gone through over 30 generations of the chemicals, with each generation marked by a switch of the material to a new vial. They researchers are currently keeping an eye out for changes that might indicate lifelike chemical cycles have taken hold, such as the generation of heat, the consumption of energy or a change in the amount of material that sticks to the pyrite.

"The view that I've come around to is that lifelike chemistry may pop up relatively easily in many, many geological settings," says David Baum, lead researcher on the project. "The problem then changes. It's no longer a problem of 'will it happen,' but how will we know it happened?"

The study could have implications beyond how life arose here on Earth. If life arises relatively "easily" under certain chemical conditions, it might be more widespread on other planets.

"If we find many different chemistries supporting lifelike reactions, we can expect more origins of life elsewhere in the universe," says Baum.

A research paper outlining the process was published in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

21 comments
Pelotoner
The THEORY of Evolution is becoming less generally accepted, contrary to what mainstream proponents say and believe. It's time to move on from this antiquated philosophy. By now it should have evolved into the LAW of Evolution if it held water.
GeoffSykes
@Pelotoner If the word "theory" was being used in the colloquial sense, yes, you'd be right. But the difference here is that Evolution is a scientific theory, which differs in definition from what is normally characterized as speculation. The colloquial definition for theory (the one you're referring to) is: "1. a. Systematically organized knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, esp. a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena. b. Such knowledge or such a system distinguished from experiment or practice. 2. Abstract reasoning: speculation. 3. An assumption or guess based on limited knowledge or information: hypothesis." A scientific theory, however, is defined as: "An explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers." Also, your claim that the theory of evolution is "becoming less generally accepted" is not true in the scientific community. Pew polls, on the other hand, may have drawn their own conclusions in the face of the same scientific observations.
Helios
@ Pelotoner Evolution is an "antiquated" philosophy? You might want to research the the terms theory, antiquated, and evolution. Trolling on a technology/science website won't get you far.
Bob
Natural evolution is NOT generally accepted. Bacteria is still bacteria. Does it change? Yes, but bacteria is still bacteria. Everything still reproduces after its own kind.
Mzungu_Mkubwa
An interesting experiment, if unfortunately doomed to fail. I liken it to watching the noise pattern on an old CRT-based TV and expecting to see a frame from Andy Griffith. Order (of the complexity required for life) simply does not arise from chaos, folks. Sorry, just not gonna happen. I would guess (if I may) that what @Pelotoner above is saying is that *Classical Darwinian Evolution" is becoming less generally accepted... that branch of evolution which relies *solely* upon the "random mutation / natural selection" mechanism to explain observed phenomena. To find an interesting dive into alternative directions, visit cosmicfingerprints.com/blog/ and click around a bit. I don't agree with much of what's mentioned there (esp. the author's dogged sales pitch for his "new" book), but lots there to stretch traditional boundaries!
fb36
IMHO I don't think replacing DNA/RNA of a living cell counts as creating artificial life. This is just my guess but I think this experiment will also fail no matter how long it continues. We'll see.
VadimR
Pelotoner is right. Using the scientific method (systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses) this will take a long time before theory of macro evolution and accidental formation of life can be considered seriously. Helios, to be scientifically literate and technology minded does not require one to be a believer of evolution. As a biologist and an engineer, the evidence to suggest that macro evolution is even remotely possible, takes much more faith than to realize that there is a creator. Logic and the evidence will lead you to that conclusion if you truly want to do the research. (Try to examine the evidence for yourself... I also suggest you visit the creation museum in Kentucky).
Dan Lewis
The thing is...nature had a whopping long time, a nearly unspeakable number of test tubes, many chemicals and environments. I'll celebrate for sure, if these dauntless explorers come up with something. Religion comforts...and cripples. History, and some of the statements made in this Comments section, show it to be so.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
If we had an ensemble of planets with life on them we would have a basis for evaluating the success of the theory of evolution. A lot of science fiction scenarios come to mind.
Helios
@VadimR I suggest you research the terms cognitive dissonance and delusion. The museum you are referring to is the one where they suggest humans lived in the same time period as dinosaurs? I don't think they have anything valuable to say about science. And the only thing that is necessary for a person to follow the Creation theory of life as we know it is belief, faith and those who will not challenge dogma out of respect for tradition and fear of insulting another's sensibilities.