April 27, 2004 6:02 PM   Subscribe

Genesis. "Life" from inorganic mixture. Full PDF paper : Spontaneous Formation of Cellular Chemical System that Sustains Itself far from Thermodynamic Equilibrium.
posted by Gyan (9 comments total)
I think I''m impressed, but I'm not a chemist. Any chemists out there who can tell me if this is significant or not?
posted by carter at 8:16 PM on April 27, 2004

looks pretty cool (though i unfortunately don't know enough about the relevant inorganic chemistry to judge how novel this is.)

questions about the genesis of life rarely focus on the creation of membranes though, from what i recall... lipid bilayer membranes [sans genetic information] behave in much the same way: put the component proteins near each other, and they'll generally form some sort of a cellular structure, because that's the best way they can deal with the polarity difference between their ends. and such structures are semipermeable, can divide, etc. but they're still not life - generally people agree that things like some sort of genetic material, the ability to self-replicate, and susceptibility to the process of evolution are required.

these "cells" don't seem to show those sorts of behaviors, from what i read in the paper and the article. so it's cool that inorganic structures can behave in ways similar to lipid bilayers, but i certainly wouldn't judge them to be anywhere near "alive" yet...
posted by ubersturm at 8:29 PM on April 27, 2004

Awww, I want one!
posted by wobh at 8:34 PM on April 27, 2004

don't know. the first logical step in life is to create an inside and an outside, with different chemical properties - if inorganic molecules can spontaneously form an enclosed space with different chemical properties inside than in the external environment, this goes a long way towards the creation of life. it likely took a very, very long time before the inner environment became capable of driving the replication of the outer, or holding genetic instructions. all we can do is speculate, wait and see how this pans out. i say, score one for science.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:28 AM on April 28, 2004

Hi ubersturm,

Not to go too far out on a limb, but I think the importance of the article has to do with the fact that some of the basic constructs of life can be created using chemicals which have had no prior connection to 'life' as we know it.

I think the significance of this is for those people who ask the question, 'how could complex life have evolved out of a primordial soup of chemicals?' Well, this information shows that there is a natural tendency for the basic building blocks of life to form even across different chemicals.

This also lends weight to theories of non-carbon based life-forms in the universe.
posted by PigAlien at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2004

This also lends weight to theories of non-carbon based life-forms in the universe.

No, because they had to add starch.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:46 AM on April 28, 2004

true, pigallen. i suppose i was a bit distracted by the premature quote about the next step being evolution.

i think these things would properly be called "protobionts". i know that they've created organic protobionts [that is, "cells" that maintain an interior environment unlike the outside environment and display some lifelike properties, like metabolism or whatever] of various sorts - some discharge voltage rather as nerve cells do, some [called coacervates] function as chemical factories and have enzyme processes, etc. some protobionts can develop from the sort of organic compounds that result from the miller-urey experiment.

so the novelty [and promise] lie in the inorganic nature of these things. while they are not entirely bereft of carbon [the paper notes that the membrane composition is Ca(CO3)(OH)(H2O), with undetermined structure], they're certainly a long way from the huge hydrocarbon chains which are the basis for actual cell membranes. i remain skeptical of the evolutionary possibilities for these things, since i've not heard of any inorganic analogue for nucleic acids, but still - damn cool.
posted by ubersturm at 12:56 PM on April 28, 2004

they'll generally form some sort of a cellular structure, because that's the best way they can deal with the polarity difference between their ends.

It's also important to note that proteins form the way they do because of their sequence. IE, they don't "remember" how to fold, it is more so that a given combination of amino acids naturally fold in a certain way.
I dunno, though, this is nothing new that I haven't heard in my biology classes. Maybe I'm a skeptic, but I have an extremely difficult time believing any evolved lifeforms are not Carbon based. Evolution did not "choose" to use carbon as its building block- rather, Carbon happens to be the best molecule out there for building complex life forms, and that is what evolution is all about.
posted by jmd82 at 1:41 PM on April 28, 2004

Oh my God! Quasi-living ooze !
posted by troutfishing at 2:28 PM on April 28, 2004

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