Dec 152014
 
via engineering.com

via engineering.com

Scientists have taken an important step towards the possibility of creating synthetic life with the development of a form of artificial evolution in a simple chemistry set without DNA.

A team from the University of Glasgow’s School of Chemistry report in a new paper in the journal Nature Communications today (Monday 8 December) on how they have managed to create an evolving chemical system for the first time. The process uses a robotic ‘aid’ and could be used in the future to ‘evolve’ new chemicals capable of performing specific tasks.

The researchers used a specially-designed open source robot based upon a cheap 3D printer to create and monitor droplets of oil in water-filled Petri dishes in their lab. Each droplet was composed from a slightly different mixture of four chemical compounds.

Droplets of oil move in water like primitive chemical machines, transferring chemical energy to kinetic energy. The researchers’ robot used a video camera to monitor, process and analyse the behaviour of 225 differently-composed droplets, identifying a number of distinct characteristics such as vibration or clustering.

The team picked out three types of droplet behaviour – division, movement and vibration – to focus on in the next stage of the research. They used the robot to deposit populations of droplets of the same composition, then ranked these populations in order of how closely they fit the criteria of behaviour identified by the researchers. The chemical composition of the ‘fittest’ population was then carried over into a second generation of droplets, and the process of robotic selection was begun again.

Over the course of 20 repetitions of the process, the researchers found that the droplets became more stable, mimicking the natural selection of evolution.
The research team was led by Professor Lee Cronin, the University of Glasgow’s Regius Chair of Chemistry.

Professor Cronin said: “This is the first time that an evolvable chemical system has existed outside of biology. Biological evolution has given rise to enormously complex and sophisticated forms of life, and our robot-driven form of evolution could have the potential to do something similar for chemical systems.

“This initial phase of research has shown that the system we’ve designed is capable of facilitating an evolutionary process, so we could in the future create models to perform specific tasks, such as splitting, then seeking out other droplets and fusing with them. We’re also keen to explore in future experiments how the emergence of unexpected features, functions and behaviours might be selected for.

“In recent years, we’ve learned a great deal about the process of biological evolution through computer simulations. However, this research provides the possibility of new ways of looking at the origins of life as well as creating new simple chemical life forms.”

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Dec 022014
 
Microbesoft: The Controversy Over Patenting Synthetic Life - via dailygalaxy.com

via dailygalaxy.com

A breakthrough in synthetic biology has opened the door to a new way of treating incurable illnesses such as cancer and Ebola, and could shed light on the origins of life or even the possibility of extraterrestrial life on other planets.

For the first time, researchers have made synthetic enzymes – the vital ingredients needed for life – from artificial genetic material that does not exist outside the laboratory. The milestone could soon lead to new ways of developing drugs and medical treatments.

The findings are the latest in the field of synthetic biology, which attempts to create new biological molecules and even novel life-forms capable of carrying out a range of important medical and industrial functions, from manufacturing pharmaceuticals to detoxifying polluted land.

“Synthetic biology is delivering some truly amazing advances that promise to change the way we understand and treat disease,” said Professor Patrick Maxwell, chair of the cellular medicine board of the Medical Research Council (MRC), which funded the study.

“The UK excels in this field and this latest advance offers the tantalising prospect of using designer biological parts as a starting point for an entirely new class of therapies and diagnostic tools that are more effective and have a longer shelf-life,” Professor Maxwell said.

The discovery, by scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, also widens the scope for finding extraterrestrial life-forms on other planets based on completely different biochemistry to that used by life on Earth.

“When we look for life elsewhere, either in the Solar System or on exoplanets beyond, this discovery means that we may have to widen the boundaries of the conditions where we think life may exist,” said Philipp Holliger, who led the MRC research team.

“It expands the chemical range that one can envisage life living in. It would potentially widen the number of exoplanets that one could consider would be hospitable for some form of life,” Dr Holliger said.

Alex Taylor, the lead author of the study, said: “The [discovery] raises the possibility that, if there is life on other planets, it may have sprung up from an entirely different set of molecules, and it widens the possible number of planets that might be able to host life.”

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