Scientists create first step toward creating ‘inorganic life’

September 17, 2011
Inorganic Life

Inorganic chemical cells (iCHELLs) (credit: University of Glasgow)

University of Glasgow scientists have taken their first tentative steps towards creating “life” from inorganic chemical cells (iCHELLS), potentially defining the new area of “inorganic biology.”

“What we are trying do is create self-replicating, evolving inorganic cells that would essentially be alive. You could call it inorganic biology,” said Professor Lee Cronin, University of Glagow Gardiner Chair of Chemistry in the College of Science and Engineering.

The cells can be compartmentalized by creating internal membranes that control the passage of materials and energy through them, meaning several chemical processes can be isolated within the same cell — just like biological cells.

The researchers say the cells, which can also store electricity, could potentially be used in all sorts of applications in medicine, as sensors or to confine chemical reactions.

The research is part of a project by Prof Cronin to demonstrate that inorganic chemical compounds are capable of self-replicating and evolving, just as organic, biological carbon-based cells do. “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.

“Bacteria are essentially single-cell micro-organisms made from organic chemicals, so why can’t we make micro-organisms from inorganic chemicals and allow them to evolve?

“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.”

Ref.: Geoffrey J. T. Cooper, et al., Modular Redox-Active Inorganic Chemical Cells: iCHELLs, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2011; [DOI: 10.1002/anie.201105068]

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