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Researcher Builds Life-Like Cells Made of Metal 259

Posted by samzenpus
from the devil-in-the-dark dept.
Sven-Erik writes "Could living things that evolved from metals be clunking about somewhere in the universe? In a lab in Glasgow, UK, one man is intent on proving that metal-based life is possible. He has managed to build cell-like bubbles from giant metal-containing molecules and has given them some life-like properties. He now hopes to induce them to evolve into fully inorganic self-replicating entities. 'I am 100 per cent positive that we can get evolution to work outside organic biology,' says Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow. His building blocks are large 'polyoxometalates' made of a range of metal atoms — most recently tungsten — linked to oxygen and phosphorus. By simply mixing them in solution, he can get them to self-assemble into cell-like spheres."
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Researcher Builds Life-Like Cells Made of Metal

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  • I for one (Score:3, Funny)

    by Aighearach (97333) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @02:09AM (#37407138) Homepage

    welcome our new polyoxometalate overlords.

  • by mdenham (747985) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @02:15AM (#37407158)

    Please make sure that these are vulnerable to projectile weaponry. The last time we had to deal with life forms of this sort, it was a real pain.

    Signed,
    Col. Jack O'Neill

    • There's more about these metal-based life forms than meets the eye.
      • by oodaloop (1229816)
        And let's hope they don't fly. I don't want robots in da skys.
        • by Lumpy (12016)

          too late. look at a diagram of the satellites orbiting. there are tens of thousands of robots in the sky, all looking down on us.

          • by peragrin (659227)

            Which is why Americans have become fat. Other countries dont want to look at us from the sky providing a natural camoflage.

          • there are tens of thousands of robots in the sky, all looking down on us.

            Up here in space,
            I'm looking down on you.
            My lasers trace,
            Everything you do.


            You think you've private lives,
            Think nothing of the kind.
            There is no true escape,
            I'm watching all the time.


            I'm made of metal,
            My circuits gleam.
            I am perpetual,
            I keep the country clean.


            Yes, we know. Thx Rob
        • I'm still laughing ....
    • Hah. They'll be subject to evolution, so that'll only last for a while.

      Signed,
      Megatron

    • by Darinbob (1142669)

      Travel across the universe, meet all sorts of alien races, view a wide variety of advanced technology, and when it's all said and done your best weapons are still P90 assault guns.

  • They're coming. Run for you lives.

    • by Liambp (1565081)

      Whenever I see an article like this about yet another scientist trying to create artificial life I wonder whether they have watched and read too much science fiction or whether they just haven't seen enough science fiction.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Some scientists write science fiction when they're not researching. Isaac Asimov, for example, held a PhD in biochemistry and did cancer research at Boston University.

        • by tixxit (1107127)
          Another example, Peter Watts is a marine biologist.
        • by geekoid (135745)

          Just so you know, holding a PhD doesn't make you a scientist, or even imply you do science.

          His title as full professor of biochemistry was honorary.

          In short, he did nothing with his degree, so to call him a scientist is laughable.

  • Shameful hype (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Linzer (753270) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @02:31AM (#37407210)
    This has to be the most overhyped, buzzword-ridden science story I've read in months. As a researcher, I hate to see whatever credibility we have spent on things like this.
  • by gilleain (1310105) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @02:32AM (#37407214)

    When asked in a talk [ted.com] on this, he claimed that they would have fully replicating matter (IE : 'living' inorganic matter) in 2 years. The host who asked the question sounded startled when he said "That would be, er, something amazing, yes" - in other words "Yeah, right!".

    On the other hand, the lab's publication list is quite impressive, and full of cool looking polygonal structures : http://www.chem.gla.ac.uk/cronin/publications.php [gla.ac.uk]

  • by satuon (1822492) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @02:50AM (#37407272)
    Without self-replication I wouldn't call them life, evolution can't work without self-replication of some sort.
    • You don't have to have the ability to replicate in order to be alive. For example worker bees can't reproduce, yet they may be considered alive. Also women past menopause and kids are alive yet they can't replicate. Or even some people who many not be fertile for whatever reason.

      Also you can't make "ability" to evolve as part of the definition of life.

      • You don't have to have the ability to replicate in order to be alive. For example worker bees can't reproduce, yet they may be considered alive. Also women past menopause and kids are alive yet they can't replicate. Or even some people who many not be fertile for whatever reason.

        Also you can't make "ability" to evolve as part of the definition of life.

        This is a very narrow, organism-focused view point. Every cell in bees and other "dead-ends" such as all of your somatic cells, are full of replicators, evolved in such a way to enhance the further replication of the germ-line into future generations. Without genetic replication, life as we know it cannot exist. So, yes, replication is a defining aspect of life.

        As for the "ability to evolve"... it's not a definer, but more of an emergent property of any and all systems with error prone replication.

      • by hjrnunes (1135957)

        . For example worker bees can't reproduce, yet they may be considered alive. Also women past menopause and kids are alive yet they can't replicate

        No. But their genes can (they do in queen bees, and adult humans), and that's what matters.

        Also you can't make "ability" to evolve as part of the definition of life.

        Indeed. Evolving is not so much an ability as it is a consequence of inexact replication.

      • by Rogerborg (306625)

        For example worker bees can't reproduce

        They can and do [physorg.com]. Bees are less specialised than ants and termites. Sorry for interrupting, please continue with your home-spun folksy gut-feeling science-talk.

      • by Dunbal (464142) *
        Worker bees can reproduce, except that this ability is suppressed by pheromones produced by an active, mature queen. But where do you think new queens come from?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Viruses can evolve. They can't self-replicate, but use the host's machinery.

      That said, the old "are viruses alive?" debate still goes on...

    • by Your.Master (1088569) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @04:58AM (#37407748)

      Evolution requires replication, not necessarily self-replication. An earlier poster mentioned viruses, which are an example of a thing, living or not (I'd say not), that evolves without replicating itself.

      Broadly speaking, "human men" and "human women" are each not self-replicating, but the system of "human men and human women" is self replicating. Still, you can speak of features that evolved in women distinctly from men, such as prominent breasts, even though human women in isolation do not self-replicate. So as a gedankenexperiment, imagine you have an imperfect cloning machine and a world of only men (the clones pop out full-grown). This single-sex could use it to replicate indefinitely and evolve. And if those men maintain, repair, and build new cloning machines, then you have a species which doesn't self-replicate by itself, but the species-cloning-machine system is self-replicating, much as the man-woman system is self-replicating. Now you can imagine that no new cloning machines are ever made but the one was built to last a hundred million years. Now there is *no* system that's self-replicating but the men still replicate, with the help of the cloning machine, and therefore still evolve.

      I don't see why evolution would be a requirement of life anyway. Evolution is merely an inescapable consequence of anything which replicates iteratively and imperfectly, whether or not it is life.

      I do know some traditional definitions of life require self-replication, at the species level.

      • I was about to say the same thing in response to GP. The "self" in self replication does apply, imo, to life, but not to evolution. The meme and the virus are two forms with arguably no "self" replication, just replication.

        However, you did make one general error:

        ...imagine you have an imperfect cloning machine and a world of only men (the clones pop out full-grown). This single-sex could use it to replicate indefinitely and evolve.

        Actually, there is no substantial evolution in cloning. The reason is this. Evolution mainly affects embriology, a step your hypothetical cloning process is bypassing. Also, you are missing the massive gene randomization during creation of the

        • You did say "imperfect cloning machine". so actually, you probably already realized that artificial mutation would need to be introduced post-cell gathering.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        It's pretty tough to get natural life without evolution. It has to spring forth fully formed. And evolution (as in Darwinian) is not an inescapable consequence. You need to have reasonable levels of mutation, some means of crossing strains and reasonable robustness to both processes.

  • Sound like Erewhon [slashdot.org]. Purge the machines that think!

  • Cells, riight (Score:4, Insightful)

    by qbast (1265706) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @03:04AM (#37407320)
    So he made some 'bubbles' that don't dissolve and can mimic some simplest properties of a cell like porous membrane. Without self-replication it is not cell or anything resembling life and without some way to change and pass those changes onto next generation there can be no evolution. In related news: I took a cardboard box and painted 'screen' and 'keyboard' on it. It totally proves that laptop can be made from cardboard. Of course it does not work, but this is just a little detail that can be worked out later.
    • Re:Cells, riight (Score:5, Informative)

      by Sockatume (732728) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @04:05AM (#37407532)

      Given that reproducing the properties of the membrane is one of the biggest outstanding problems in the creation of artificial cells, it seems pretty obvious that this is a step forward.

    • Re:Cells, riight (Score:5, Insightful)

      by silentcoder (1241496) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @04:45AM (#37407684) Homepage

      > Without self-replication it is not cell or anything resembling life

      Nobody ever said self replication has to work the same way it does for us. The article does say he found ways for the cells to use other cells as templates for modification and indeed replication.
      It's an interesting approach to replication - as it changes one existing cell into a replica of another, but it's quite feasible. More-over we have no actual idea what the earliest organic structures looked like, or even how they came to exist. There are dozens of viable theories on abiogenesis and none of them are currently provable - for all we know, that is exactly how the earliest replicating life began ! What were we BEFORE we were cells ? Surely we were simpler, more primitive cells with less of the features of current ones, and before that ? Well the mitochondria we have INSIDE our cells were once a seperate organism... now what used to be something alive in it's own right, is just a component of our cells. How many other components of our cells began as seperate, simpler, life form but didn't leave us fossils to conveniently prove it with ?

      This research is in fact incredibly exciting because it shows a way of experimenting with ways early life may have begun. It's using different materials - but that's actually a GOOD thing, as it stops us from trying to just recreate what we have when we don't know what, what we have, used to be. It forces us to think from scratch, as life would have started... and that IS exciting.
      More-over, if it works, if it gets far enough... it opens up entire new avenues of consideration in terms of how life may have evolved on other worlds.

      • by gilleain (1310105)

        This research is in fact incredibly exciting because it shows a way of experimenting with ways early life may have begun. It's using different materials - but that's actually a GOOD thing, as it stops us from trying to just recreate what we have when we don't know what, what we have, used to be. It forces us to think from scratch, as life would have started... and that IS exciting.

        Well, you make a better case for his research than he does :)

        Indeed, it is a good idea to have model systems that show the same features, but are not necessarily 'what happened'. They can show the principles are general enough to occur spontaneously with a reasonable probability. Another thing about inorganic cells is they are one of the possibilities for part of the systems in early life. In other words; something had to concentrate the chemicals and simple macromolecules that were starting to form so that

        • The only thing that worries me is if the "Intelligent Design" folks latch onto this. It seems like this guy is going to continue tweaking the experiment in hope of generating some self-replicating strain of his bubbles. (Heck, I would too.) But the ID crowd might see this as "proof" that life could only begin with "guidance" from above.

          • by Chris Burke (6130)

            The only thing that worries me is if the "Intelligent Design" folks latch onto this. It seems like this guy is going to continue tweaking the experiment in hope of generating some self-replicating strain of his bubbles. (Heck, I would too.) But the ID crowd might see this as "proof" that life could only begin with "guidance" from above.

            So what? They do that to anything whether it makes any sense or not. Digital cameras are as much "proof" that eyes can only be created by a "designer".

            So what's the worry? That IDers will say "Ah ha!" and continue to think and say silly things? Oh noes! Science will as always press on without them.

          • No they wont, they don't have to. They'll focus on how different these metal membranes are from actual life.
    • Have you seen the new Dell laptops? I think they have proven that laptops can damn well be made of cardboard.
    • I've read of some theories that suggests that the earliest kinds of life, before RNA or DNA, may not have self-replicated as we understand it, but may have used external forces, like wave action or turbidity to physically cause cell division. You really have to stretch your mind here and get past a lot of the assumptions we've built up because we live in a world with fully-evolved life forms.

  • Self replicating nanobots scare me...but only on this planet. Anywhere else and it's a friggin' miracle.
  • by Viol8 (599362) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @04:27AM (#37407620)

    Perhaps *in theory* you could create some system using metals, but in practice in the real world if there was any carbon around in the system than whatever kicks off "life" would be more likely to end up using that simply because of the flexibility it allows and metal based organisms would soon be outcompeted and go extinct. Also its curious to note that his system still requires water.

    Wasn't silicon the carbon alternative a few decades back? Whatever happened to the ideas of alternative life based on that (no, not electronics)?

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @04:45AM (#37407686)
    What he did was inventing a metal-based soap. Wich is impressive, but very far from life.
  • The threat is not Skynet. The threat is Beakernet.
  • Do they know what Tastey Wheat tastes like?

  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Thursday September 15, 2011 @09:35AM (#37409460)

    Since I first heard Metallica's Kill 'Em All.

When you make your mark in the world, watch out for guys with erasers. -- The Wall Street Journal

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