All life on Earth is carbon-based, which has led to the widespread assumption that any other life that may exist in the universe would also be carbon-based. Excluding the possibility of elements other than carbon forming the basis of life is often referred to as carbon chauvinism and researchers at the University of Glasgow are looking to overcome this bias and provide new insights into evolution by attempting to create "life" from carbon-free, inorganic chemicals. They've now taken the first tentative steps towards this goal with the creation of inorganic-chemical-cells, or iCHELLS.
Just like biological cells, the cells created by Professor Lee Cronin, Gardiner Chair of Chemistry in the College of Science and Engineering, allow several chemical processes to be isolated within them. They can be compartmentalized by creating internal membranes that control the passage of materials and energy through them. The researchers say the cells, which can also store electricity, could potentially be used in all sorts of applications, such as sensors or to confine chemical reactions.
However, the ultimate goal of the project is to demonstrate that inorganic chemical compounds are capable of self-replicating and evolving, just like organic, biological carbon-based cells.
Prof Cronin says the current theory of evolution is really a special theory of evolution because it only applies only to organic biology. He says that if he and his team are successful in creating life from inorganic matter, it could lead to a general theory of evolution.
"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," said Prof Cronin. "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."
Prof Cronin gave a talk at TED Global earlier this year in Edinburgh where he said that if his team is successful in creating life while taking carbon out of the equation, it might reveal what other elements might be capable of producing life elsewhere in the universe and provide NASA with a better idea of what to look for in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The University of Glasgow team's paper "Modular Redox-Active Inorganic Chemical Cells: iCHELLs' is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.