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"Immortal Molecule" Evolves — How Close To Synthetic Life? 270

An anonymous reader writes with word of ongoing work at Scripps Research Institute: "Can life arise from nothing but a chaotic assortment of basic molecules? The answer is a lot closer following a series of ingenious experiments that have shown evolution at work in non-living molecules."
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"Immortal Molecule" Evolves — How Close To Synthetic Life?

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  • by meow27 ( 1526173 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @08:59PM (#31214774)
    "evolution at work in non-living molecules."

    molecules can live?

    ok just making sure :)
    • by John Hasler ( 414242 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @09:01PM (#31214792) Homepage

      > molecules can live?

      You are molecules. Do you live?

      • by headkase ( 533448 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @09:05PM (#31214810)
        There is no "life", there is only cohesiveness over time. The magical attribute called "alive" does not actually exist anywhere in our Universe ;) We just don't happen to fall apart for a while while we compute.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          "We just don't happen to fall apart for a while while we compute."

          Uhhh, yea, and we call that attribute life.

        • by biryokumaru ( 822262 ) * <> on Saturday February 20, 2010 @09:17PM (#31214884)

          In biology [], life is defined as have the following characteristics:

          • Homeostasis
          • Organization
          • Metabolism
          • Growth
          • Adaptation
          • Response to Stimuli
          • Reproduction

          Having these characteristics defines something as being "alive." See, not magic.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by carbuck ( 1728596 )
            organization.. response to stimuli... reproduction.. by this definition, most /. are not alive
          • by Rand310 ( 264407 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @11:43PM (#31215762)
            I just saw this professor speak in a lecture to his peers. His conclusion was that what is preventing his molecules from being 'alive' is their inability to undertake novel action. They only go so far as to maximize their sustainability environment and nothing more. Though the 'environments' he gave the molecules were in fact static. It is only a matter of time before we can test situations which really do test our definitions.
          • Yeah. IN biology. Because biologic life is the only life that could possibly arise. Ever.

            Life is just an expanding (reproduction/growth) mass of something that processes/transforms some matter against the forces of thermodynamics (from chaos to order). That’s all.

            It doesn’t even have to be physical matter. Data is just as fine. Or energy in other forms. Or simulated $something inside a computer.

            Also, drawing a clear line between “life” and “not life” is the dumbest fuckin

            • My point is that life is a word, and that it does mean something very specific. I would argue that it might be best to use a different word to describe what we're talking about here. Likewise with the concept of intelligence. Both "life" and "intelligence" are too loaded with historic and cultural nonsense for us to redefine them with more broad-spectrum significance. This is why people who study such fields create their own nomenclature.

              In short, life is a term which only really meaningfully applies to bio

            • Because biologic life is the only life that could possibly arise.

              Um, you are aware of what "bio" means, right?

          • by JustOK ( 667959 )

            sounds more like one of them high pot thesis

        • if yes, then you admit to something about this "life" concept is real

        • There is no "life", there is only cohesiveness over time.

          There is no Slashdot posts either, just cohesive list of letters, but it doesn't seem to stop people from reading them.

          Claiming that there is no forest, just lots of trees near each other, is kinda stupid argument.

      • by cyborg_zx ( 893396 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @09:08PM (#31214818)
        Composition fallacy: the properties of the whole are the same as its parts.

        Example: a watch can keep time therefore a cog can keep time.
        • In a rigid machine sense, yes. However consider the old term: Holarchy [] which are composed of holons []. In that view parts and wholes are simultaneously each other. Parts can have properties of wholes and wholes can operate roughly the same as their parts. The terms pre-dated Fractals [] but do share quite a few similarities.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by khallow ( 566160 )
          That's not a proper application of the composition fallacy. An applicable statement would be "If a cog can't keep time, then a watch can't keep time". If John Hasler (the original poster) claimed that "molecules aren't alive, hence anything made of molecules isn't alive", then he'd be committing the composition fallacy.

          I see nothing wrong with the philosophical approach [] of headkase (another replier to your post) who merges properties of components and the whole. For example, a typical metal screw sinks
      • My car is metal. I drive my car. Therefore I can drive....

        Waaiit, I think we might be missing something.

      • by martas ( 1439879 )
        how is this flamebait? the guy's simply referring to the common conclusion of reductionism - there's no such thing as life as a separate category.
      • by Hojima ( 1228978 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @11:40PM (#31215746)

        Sure. Anything with nipples can live.

        • Sure. Anything with nipples can live.

          I believe the correct quote is, "I have nipples Faucker, can you milk me"

    • by Khyber ( 864651 )

      Why, YES. []

      Maybe you should re-think what you think you learned in school.

      That's right, we're proposing a NEW DEFINITION for life.

  • by headkase ( 533448 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @08:59PM (#31214776)
    Evolution is a process, it applies equally well to many substrates. Organic molecules are one of the classes and many other phenomena can be described in evolutionary terms. If you go to an extreme you can say the all structures in our Universe are evolved with the loosest definition of Evolution as: "Change over time."
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by thms ( 1339227 )

      I would not follow you to that extreme. For some substrate to evolve it has to be able to replicate itself, i.e. locally work against entropy. The following steps of mutation due to imperfect copies and selection are then simple or even self-evident. I wonder if you could call the process before that point a competition between non-replicating substrates to become the first one to replicate itself.

      And if science finally manages to crack the abiogenesis nut there, I can still appease those of more religiou

      • Evolutionary principles have undeniably been implemented in computers. In those systems silicon is the ultimate substrate however they are a bit removed because the principles run in artificial realities.
      • The word "evolve" existed long before biological evolution was ever contemplated. It is, in fact, a synonym of "develop", and simply means "to achieve over time".

        The universe, the solar system, cars, computers, and all the various business schemes we know and love today all evolved over the history of the universe.

        Apply it to biology, and you have biological advancements that are achieved over time. That evolution has become associated with biology is a new evolution of language.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      More interestingly, something resembling the much tighter definition that applies to biology is also applicable to a fair few situations:

      If you have a set of entities capable of some analog of reproduction(whether those be organisms, these catalyst molecules, or religions that spawn sects), a source of variation(whether it be genetic mutation, stochastic thermal buffeting in the test tube, or people dreaming up new rituals and scriptural interpretations), and some sort of selective pressure(whether it be
    • If you go to an extreme you can say the all structures in our Universe are evolved with the loosest definition of Evolution as: "Change over time."

      Uh, that's not evolution. That's... change over time.

      Evolution requires just three things: replication, random mutation, and a fitness function. That's basically it. But those pieces are absolutely *necessary* for any process to be considered an evolutionary process.

      • Uh, that's not evolution. That's... change over time.

        The actual definition of the word "evolve" is "to achieve over time". It is more than just change, it implies improvement. It is a synonym of "develop". I would definitely consider our current universe a vast improvement over the mass of hot gas that existed shortly after the Big Bang. Evolution is definitely the right word, and you don't have to stretch the definition at all.

        What you are thinking of as "Evolution" is simply biological evolution, or as another poster more descriptively put it "evolution

        • What you are thinking of as "Evolution" is simply biological evolution

          Well, given that the article is explicitely about biological (actually, I prefer to refer to it as "scientific", since the process applies to more than just biology) evolution, I don't see what your point is. Or do you just like changing the subject?

          Evolution is definitely the right word, and you don't have to stretch the definition at all.

          Correct. You just picked a different one entirely. But "evolution", in the context of this articl

    • Evolution = "Change over time" ?!?!?!?!

      I think you're confusing "evolution" with "entropy"...

      • More correctly, Evolution="achieve over time".

        Think about it.

        If you still have trouble, find a dictionary.

  • Working with the ribosome seems like as good an idea as any, but the research seems so restricted. The nutrient rich medium does run out, but they are not selecting for long term viability, they are only selecting for speed of replication.

    Problems that this does not address are: how did metabolisms develop, and where did membranes come from? It seems that a membrane bound replicating body of this sort would fit all the requirements of rudimentary life.

  • No (Score:5, Funny)

    by rrohbeck ( 944847 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @09:48PM (#31215104)

    It can't be true since God didn't make it. Obviously :)

    • by headkase ( 533448 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @10:03PM (#31215230)
      The older I get the more I wonder about the relationships in our Universe. Now, it may just be cognitive cob-webs but who is to actually say that God is not waiting for us beyond the last theorem? Physics is not complete yet so isn't it hubris to proclaim that there is no God without a complete understanding of where our Universe came from? I am finding it more difficult to remain an atheist to the point that I have become an igtheist [] as I have gained more life experience. Just because most of what the world pushes on you as the concept of "God" is complete crap does not mean that "God" does not exist. The definition is where the meat lies. Perhaps someday physics will be complete assuming the incompletness theorem doesn't prevent that and we will know for sure. Until then, don't be so cock-eyed and smug in your "logical" denial.
      • by ErikZ ( 55491 ) *

        "Now, it may just be cognitive cob-webs but who is to actually say that God is not waiting for us beyond the last theorem?"

        Oh! That's in the second to last theorem.

      • The older I get the more I wonder about the relationships in our Universe. Now, it may just be cognitive cob-webs but who is to actually say that God is not waiting for us beyond the last theorem?

        Oh no! Your brain may be degrading! []

        I personally don't care. Atheists tend to be almost religious in spreading the word of no-god. I really don't care. I do good stuff with my life. If there's a god when I die, then he may or may not judge me, and something may happen to me, depending on your religion of choice. If there isn't, then I didn't waste any time in church. :P Instead I was being nice to people, and helping people, and playing videogames.

        I agree about the hubris part though - in science, theories t

      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        I tend to agree to some extent. It's not the concept of God (or gods) that bothers me, but rather human projection of the concept. The problem is that I don't trust humans, and humans probably made up characteristics of what God/gods is out of their petty biased emotional asses.

        In fact, I'm *sure* most of it is made up because much of it conflicts. If there is One True Brand of Religion, that means the other 99,999 brands are the wrong one. (Although a few religions allow a big flexible membership of gods.)

      • cock-eyed smug believers

        believers are bothered by cock-eyed smug atheists

        myself, i'm just bothered by cock-eyed smug people

        most believers, and atheists, just don't consider the realm of theology to be something to dwell that much on. they're lives are not simple, they are not stupid, they merely know a lesson apparently many don't know: humility on large questions

        whatever is, or is not, out there, one thing for certain is: a little tact and subtlety is fucking appreciated from all of you, thanks

        to me, one o

      • Correct me if I'm wrong, but if we do finally solve all the questions posed by physics, biology, neurology, et al... Would we not be "God" ourselves? We would be able to create whatever we wanted having full knowledge over matter, cause and effect chains, and all that. So, while striving to find all the answers, we'd become "Gods" ourselves, thus invalidating all religion except that of answers. You'd find that "God" is you and I and your friends, family, etc. If that were the case, then who created you

      • For me it's the exact opposite.
        I was raised Catholic but as I started to think for myself as a teen I found out that the emperor doesn't wear any clothes. Ever since I have wondered why other people don't see that.
        Now as I get older, I understand more about psychology, sociology and evolution, and start to see why religion evolved and that it did (and does) have an evolutionary fitness aspect. I still don't get it but I can see why it exists. Just like many other weird human behaviors.

      • "Until then, don't be so cock-eyed and smug in your "logical" denial."

        You should take a little of your own advice, your mind is slipping in your advancing age old man. Your arguments are absurd antique canards as unreasoned as the incoherent ramblings of a senile witch doctor.

        "who is to actually say that God is not waiting for us beyond the last theorem?"

        Who's to say there isn't a fucking purple unicorn that shits rainbows and barfs candy? Yeah, you're right, absence of evidence doesn't mean evidence of abs

      • who is to actually say that God is not waiting for us beyond the last theorem? Physics is not complete yet so isn't it hubris to proclaim that there is no God without a complete understanding of where our Universe came from?

        You are getting the issue sort of backwards. You are asking for evidence of a negative--evidence that God does NOT exist, and since proving a negative is impossible (disregarding logical impossibilities, like square circles), it's no wonder that you're coming up short. The issue is

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      It can't be true since God didn't make it. Obviously :)

      God did make it. It's just that to these new critters, God is a giant pink two-eyed thing in a long silly white coat.

  • They have nice things there... replication, making not perfect copies, but what they dont have is death. And death is a critical for evolving... without it, you will consume all consummable resources, and when that happens no more copies will be possible. At least until some molecule turns into predator and eats those supposed "immortal" molecules.
    • "death is a critical for evolving... without it, you will consume all consummable resources, and when that happens no more copies will be possible."

      That happens all the time and it's called ecological microsucesion. On a complex environment, when a colonizator consumes all its share, it disappears and its very detritus is the basis for the next colonizing wave (cow shits and death trees are the two paradigmatic examples). On the starting point you either are lucky enough that some deviation from the origi

  • The "Alan Hills" Mars meteorite has triggered interest in a type of bacteria temporarily coined "nanobacteria". The alleged bacterial fossils in the meteorite have been criticized as too small to be bacteria.

    Since then the search for earthly equivalents has taken off. Some of the candidates appear to be either non-living, or on the borderline, including curious objects found in human blood.

    And it tickles the question of how small a bacterium can get and still be "alive". It's too new of a field to make any

  • by rritterson ( 588983 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @10:00PM (#31215206)
    For those current in the field, this discovery is not surprising. Several people have created synthetic ribozymes [] already, most doing some trivial and superfluous task. It was only a matter of time until someone created a self-replicating ribozyme. Yet, they do serve as basic evidence that the RNA-world hypothesis [] may be correct.

    However, a soup of replicating molecules is still a far cry from life, and, indeed, there are many more complicated features of life as we know it, even at the most basic level, for which there is no creation hypothesis. We know that membranes can self-assemble into micelles, and one key component of all life is a membrane layer to separate the living environment from the surroundings. However, if, by chance, a micelle happened to self-assemble around a ribozyme, how does the ribozyme continue to function, now that it has no ready source of diffusing ribonucleotides (the building block of RNA)?

    Second, how did the first micelles replicate? Did they simply continue to grow as more membrane molecules spontaneously add to them until they broke apart into two? Perhaps life arose in some sort of thermally-cycling environment and the micelles broke apart at high temperture, releasing the contents, and then reformed again, with new randomized contents when the temperature cooled.

    Third, how did we transition from RNA contents with lipid membranes into the vastly richer information of the amino acid world? Is there a reductionist "alphabet" for amino acids that may have served as the starting point, from which the extra amino acids were added slowly. Is our alphabet 'optimal' (virtually all life uses the same 20-acid alphabet, which minor variations of 1 or 2 in extreme organisms)? Or perhaps the alphabet only evolved once, and thus had no competition and could be completely far from optimal.

    As you can see, there are a number of interesting questions to be explored. We have, however, gone from not knowing how the basic components of cells (proteins, DNA, lipids) functioned, to knowing that DNA encodes the 'heritable' information, to its structure, to the Miller-Urey experiment [], and now on to knowing immense details about the complicated protein functional networks within cells, and between cells as well creating synthetic molecules that can evolve via natural selection, all in the span of just more than a century. It's going to be extremely fun to see what we know by the end of the 21st century. Right now we feel like we know all of the basics and just have to work on the hard stuff. I will bet dollars to donuts that we have a lot to learn, and, by 2100, several discoveries will have been made that future people will wonder how we ever thought we knew anything without.
    • These are interesting questions, some of which are discussed in a great book on the topic "The RNA World" (3rd ed is the latest) edited by Cech, Atkins, and Gesteland. Joyce has a great chapter in it (chapter 2) about the RNA world hypothesis and the evidence supporting it. And for those who have access, I would recommend the Joyce lab's most recent articles:

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "They're just molecules, so they do what they do until they run out of substrate. And this will go for ever it's an immortal molecule, if you like, he told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in San Diego."

    Later in the evening working alone, Dr DeSilva accidentally cut himself with an x-acto contaminated by his cultures. The RNA slowly overtook his own cellular composition, "blindly finding solutions that made them more successful". Ironically, he had unknowingly predic

  • by mim ( 535591 )
    "The team then extracted a random subset, and put them in a new medium: ribozymes then competed with each other to consume as much of the medium as possible." Sounds like my ex-boyfriend & his beer buddies.
  • It does not contradict the Bible at all. After all the evilution, they still remain the molecule kind.
  • by telomerewhythere ( 1493937 ) on Saturday February 20, 2010 @11:49PM (#31215802)
    I found this looking for more information. A good primer of what they are doing. Joyce Lab News 1 []
  • Since the scientists involved synthesized the original molecules through their manipulations, I don't see how this can be viewed as evidence of any sort of spontaneous evolution. Throw together the random ingredients that should have been in the primordial soup and let them cook. If they then start evolving, it will be something to write home about. Until then, it's just like a mechanic taking parts from a bunch of different cars, slapping them together, getting something that turns over, and then expres
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Max_W ( 812974 )

      In the former USSR the large scale industrial experiments were conducted to create living cells from a primordial soup. It was done as a part of defense effort.

      It does not work. They tried everything lightening, temperature change, radiation, UV, infrared, vibrations, etc. Nothing worked. Life is starting in some different way.

      • Re:Synthesized (Score:4, Informative)

        by MacWiz ( 665750 ) <{gzieman54} {at} {}> on Sunday February 21, 2010 @03:13AM (#31216776) Journal

        It does not work. They tried everything...

        Obviously not.

        Maybe they tried everything they could think of... Where did they get the primordial soup recipe and how do they know they didn't miss something that no longer exists on the planet?

        They haven't tried a close pass through the tail of a comet yet or a giant meteor impact, both of which could be potential carriers of a missing spark albeit with some nasty side effects (irrelevant if there wasn't any life to begin with). They haven't tried everything.


        The unknown unknowns are the ones to watch for.

    • In other words, an "intelligent" being was behind the experiment, making sure the necessary components were there.

      I am not a theistic evolutionist by any means. I do find it interesting that apparently, experiments HAVEN'T shown this yet (or this would not be news at all!), and yet so many people say they believe it because it's science...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      You're misunderstanding the point because of the bad summary. They observed "spontaneous" evolution because the molecule has three qualities: it can self-replicate, it can pass down heritable information to offspring, and it can alter it's code (in some way that the article doeesn't describe). The descendents of the original synthesized molecules were much more tuned to their environment and out-compete "weaker" descendents of the original molecules.

      So, really this just nicely shows the necessary conditi

Information is the inverse of entropy.