Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Life could possibly be based on metal

In an attempt to synthesize living cells, Scottish researchers have found a rather unusual way to go about it. In a lab in Glasgow they managed to create cell-like bubbles, called iCHELLs, using metals linked to oxygen and phosphorus. Because the resulting metallic compounds are insoluble in water, all it took was shaking it a bit to let them self-assemble into spheres that have cell-like properties. And apparently, they are more than just bubbles. For example, the oxide atoms in the metallic sphere can form a structure that resembles a pore in the cell membrane, which allows influx and efflux of molecules, a basal and essential feature of cells.
Of course, cells are more than just empty shells with a few holes pierced in them. There is a complex set of machinery that take care of cellular functions. The Scots have found a way to mimic this as well. Actually, they have managed to recreate one of the most important features of cellular life: creating energy. Instead of making artificial mitochondria, that provide energy production in normal mammalian cells, the metallic cells use light-sensitive dyes that are utilized to produce energy by photosynthesis.

Creating a true living cell out of metallic compounds is still far away. A cell is incredibly complex, with an enormous set molecules raging throughout the cell in various pathways. And of course, there is no cellular reproduction possible without an information structure like DNA, and the machinery needed for replication. However, the production of these inorganic spheres with cell-like properties is quite amazing. Preliminary results show these metallic cells are indeed able to produce energy, which is an important step in the right direction.

The head researcher of the project, Lee Cronin, made an interesting comment on his work in an interview with New Scientist: the possibility of creating living cells with inorganic materials means that extraterrestrial life could very well be completely different to our carbon-based life.

Who knows, one day, we will make robots based on organic principles of life.

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