Thursday, September 22, 2011

Life, Jim, but not as we know it!

This is a video of cell-like structures being made from entirely non-organic components by a group in Glasgow. Primarily these so-called 'iCHELLS' (inorganic chemical cells) are made from metallic compounds, such as tungsten reacted with phosphate and oxygen. The bubble that results from injecting these compounds into a high-salt solution allows some molecules through but not others, much in the same way that a cell membrane does, and putting bubbles within these bubbles mimics the organisation of a real-life cell. The group is currently working on adding light-sensitive dyes to specific compartments in an attempt to recreate photosynthesis and generally making their structure and chemistry more complex and life-like.
This is an impressive achievement and whilst it's still absolutely no where near being a real, living cell, it does demonstrate that life in other parts of the universe may be based on entirely different chemistry to that on Earth! If that's the case then the number of potential planets that could support life may be massively more than our current estimates. This sort of thinking has been knocking around for a while now, but this is the first time that we've successfully recreated what it might look like in the lab! If you want more detail, have a look at the researchers' original paper or head over to a more thorough article in the New Scientist.

1 comment:

  1. There's something incredible about this video: it's beautiful in its way, and seems like a perfect example of what you described in your first 'motivation for the blog' post as the original sense of wonder that living things are made up of non-living things -- that life forms break down into inert(?!) chemicals.

    And it does seem like another example of visualization as an active part of a scientific research method.