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An Inorganic, Metallic Life?

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Could living things that evolved from metals be clunking about somewhere in the universe? Perhaps. 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 (see photo, right) 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.

Cronin and his team begin by creating salts from negatively charged ions of the large metal oxides bound to a small positively charged ion such as hydrogen or sodium. A solution of this salt is squirted into another salt solution made of large, positively charged organic ions bound to small negative ones.

When the two salts meet, they swap parts and the large metal oxides end up partnered with the large organic ions. The new salt is insoluble in water: it precipitates as a shell around the injected solution.

Cronin calls the resulting bubbles inorganic chemical cells, or iCHELLs, and says they are far more than mere curiosities. By modifying their metal oxide backbone he can give the bubbles some of the characteristics of the membranes of natural cells.

For example, an oxide with a hole as part of its structure becomes a porous membrane, selectively allowing chemicals in and out of the cell according to size, just like the walls of biological cells. This property gives the membrane control over the range of chemical reactions that can happen within – a key feature of specialised cells (Angewandte Chemie, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201105068).”

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