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Researcher Builds Life-Like Cells Made of Metal 259

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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  • by gilleain ( 1310105 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @04:49AM (#37407468)

    Interesting post. I think that you are right, but for the wrong reasons.

    As you point out, a major part of the story of life is the growth in complexity. Just having a bounding membrane - Cronin's current claim - is only the first step on a long road. A key next step is - like ATP synthase - to set up an energy source. It is thought by some that the first membranes played an important role in energy capture by allowing primitive cells to set up an ion gradient across them

    The problem that I see is a lack of potential in non-carbon structures. The number of possible forms of proteins is very large; the number for polyoxometallates is larger then most inorganic forms but still smaller than organic. So he may get some steps down the road of complexity, but run out of steam (to mix metaphors!) half way there.

    Finally, crystal structures only show one feature of life : growth. If he can demonstrate self-replicating, self-repairing, self-bounding, inorganic structures then it will be life.

  • by silentcoder ( 1241496 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @08:17AM (#37408240)

    >0. As for evolution, consider this: http://science.slashdot.org/story/09/02/16/0328212/Acquired-Characteristics-May-Be-Inheritable [slashdot.org]

    That is the ancient Lamarckian theorem, just because we've got reason to think that it may have some truth, it says NOTHING about evolution. If anything it strengthens it.

    >1. `many scientists today believe this was not required and there are several alternative viable theories': are they really `viable', are todays scientist all that non-error-prone?

    You're confusing meanings of "viable". Viable in this context means "could work" not "will work". They are viable in that they make sense, do not violate the known laws of nature and may be true. That is not a claim that they are correct, or that it is what actually happened - we don't have the means (at least not yet) to determine what actually happened, which is the only way to prove any such theory. Even if we used one to create new life tomorrow it wouldn't prove the theory true- it would still remain "viable" only, we'll have given it a LOT more evidence (by showing that it CAN happen that way with absolute certainty) but we would not have proven that it DID happen that way. Science is not non-error-prone, science however has incredibly high standards of testing that it uses to REMOVE errors. Where testing is impossible (or at least very difficult) theories hold less weight. That we can't know for sure if it was crystaline or clay or any of the other theories of abiogenesis doesn't weaken science, it's proof of science's resilience in that it refuses to call a theory "Fact" without being able to check.

    2> ...
    Your whole paragraph is entirely non-sensicle. Showing that the universe and life can come to exist in it's present state without a conscious creation process reduces the need to invoke a creator to explain it. All religion, including your own, came from our ancestors inabillity to explain things. Now we can explain (almost) all of them, and their explanation (some big all-powerful guy did it) holds a LOT less water.
    The simple truth is - if you believe in God, that's your right, but don't mix theology and science because they have NOTHING in common (except origins - a long, long time ago - both tried to explain the world to people). Science questions itself, religion does not - this makes them fundamentally incompatible. You can believe in God and accept science as valuable, but you cannot pretend that the one can enligthen you about the other. To reject a scientific idea on the grounds that it conflicts with religion is hypocrisy unless you are equally willing to reject a religious idea on the grounds that it conflicts with science.
    Either way you're playing a very difficult mental balancing game between a way of thinking built on rationality and demand of proof and consistent, critical self-questioning versus one built on "do and think as you are told".

  • by silentcoder ( 1241496 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @09:30AM (#37408716)

    >Evolution is taught as a concept things changing but it makes the grand claim of things improving upon themselves to do it, by gaining complexity and self forming into "higher" life forms.

    No, it does not. Evolution simply favors that which survives the best. Sometimes it does so by REDUCING complexity. A good example: frog genomes are nearly 500 times more complex than human genomes (that is - they have about 500 times as many genes as we do). Yet frogs have been around a lot longer than we are and are way more primitive. But frog DNA has to deal with all sorts of things - a tadpole in an egg needs to develop at a certain rate, that implies chemical reactions and chemical reactions are temperature sensitive. So if it gets warmer the enzymes need to have things added that slow down the reactions, if it gets colder other things are added to speed them up. Frog DNA are filled with countless little variations of "if temperature is between X and Y add enzyme Z" for every proteine in their bodies.
    Humans (in fact all mammals) get to grow in a climate controlled environment so we have long since discarded all that extra DNA which egg-layers have. We've evolved to survive better by getting SIMPLER - not more complex.

    Most of the rest of your post is common and well debunked arguments. They are based on truth but the conclusions are false since they are massively oversimplified.

    Here's a little example of such an oversimplification. Humans (and most other mammals) contain a protein called HSP-90. HSP-90 is one of those special proteines which fold other proteins into shape. It is very rigid, and will fold them into the "orthodox" shape EVEN IF the DNA has mutated, suppressing mutations from being realized into grown cells. Call it a checker for copying errors in DNA.
    But HSP means "Heat Shock Proteine", HSP proteins are a family of proteins that the body uses in cases of sudden temperature change to help regulate our warm-blooded body temperatures. So if during early gestation there is a sudden temperature change- HSP gets diverted from folding proteins into it's "adult" job of regulating body temperature. Now the folding gets done by other folders - which lack it's rigidy and will simply do whatever the DNA says.

    Look what's happening here - usually the body will suppress mutations, they could lie dormant for thousands of years without a single person born in which they have actually been realized, there's a sudden climate change - now the body stops suppressing, mutations galore get allowed to be realized into offspring. Evolution reached the point of doing it on-demand. When there is sudden climate change, it allows every mutation it has available to occur. This is beautiful. When things are stable - stick to what's working, when things change - the species tries everything. It uses every weird mutation it has to try and produce a version that may be suited to surviving in the new conditions.
    One form of rapid speciation is triggered by HSP-90's effects. Of course MOST of those mutations die out, but if one is better suited to the sudden ice-age (or whatever) then it survives and breeds better- and once it goes to a second generation that DNA is now treated AS the orthodox, so it's not suppressed anymore. Voila - species change in a single generation. Using saved up mutations over thousands or even millions of years, that never ever showed up as organisms until the time when the world changed and sticking to "what always worked" is no longer a good idea.

    >Charles became an atheist. I think it happened when one of his children died, but I could be wrong on that.

    He died a troubled agnostic, but at the time when he was writing his grand works he was definitely a believer and in fact Origin of Species and Descent of Man both directly credit God for starting the process (multiple times). He actually held back on publishing Origin for nearly a decade because he feared that people could interpret it in ways that could harm his beloved church.

    Everything you said about i

"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982