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University in Glasgow to Create “Inorganic” Life

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on September 17, 2011

BBC: “Glasgow University in bid to create ‘inorganic life’Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, . . .or all-of-the-above?

Inorganic life? Is it possible? Well, that’s what Glasgow University Professor Lee Cronin is trying to create. All life as we know it is based on carbon, an element of remarkable versatility. But could life exist with a different kind of chemistry—a chemistry not based on carbon?

Cronin’s efforts involve getting “polyoxometalates” in solution to self-assemble into spheres he calls iCHELLS. He has been able get them to self-replicate using each other as templates.1 Now he is trying to get them to respond to environmental changes in a true survival-of-the-fittest manner. He says, “I think we have just shown the first droplets that can evolve.”2

Publicity surrounding Professor Cronin’s goals focuses on the evolutionary implications of his research.

Publicity surrounding Professor Cronin’s goals focuses on the evolutionary implications of his research. How do we define life? Frankly, neither creationists nor evolutionists can offer a good definition of life but instead describe its attributes. Professor Cronin says, “What we are trying do is create self-replicating, evolving, inorganic cells that would essentially be alive. You could call it inorganic biology.” These cells would be divided into membrane-bound compartments in order to allow controlled interaction of various chemical reactions within the cell, “just like biological cells.”

Thus we see that the essential attributes Cronin wishes his new life-forms to have are the abilities to reproduce and to evolve. The definition of self-replicating is pretty obvious. But how does Cronin define evolve? Some people insist that every adaptation and variation within a kind of organism is evolution. They usually assert that such observable occurrences demonstrate that an accumulation of mutations will also evolve new kinds of organisms. An additional aspect of unobservable evolution is the molecules-to-man notion that life can spontaneously arise from random interaction of non-living components. Cronin’s remarks suggest he would opt for both latter definitions.

Explaining his underlying purpose, Cronin says, “The grand aim is to construct complex chemical cells with life-like properties that could help us understand how life emerged and also to use this approach to define a new technology based upon evolution in the material world - a kind of inorganic living technology. . . . Bacteria are essentially single-cell micro-organisms made from organic chemicals, so why can't we make micro-organisms from inorganic chemicals and allow them to evolve?”

“If successful,” he adds, “this would give us some incredible insights into evolution and show that it's not just a biological process. It would also mean that we would have proven that non carbon-based life could exist and totally redefine our ideas of design.”

Well, Cronin’s project is already out of the running for a molecules-to-man demonstration since it starts out as intelligent design, at best. “Making” and “constructing” what amounts to tiny self-sustaining, self-replicating multi-chambered floating batteries may “refine our ideas of design,” but it won’t demonstrate anything about “how life emerged” through random undirected molecular interactions.

As to developing “a new technology based upon evolution in the material world,” we fear there wouldn’t be much of a market for its applications, at least not for long.

As to developing “a new technology based upon evolution in the material world,” we fear there wouldn’t be much of a market for its applications, at least not for long. If this new technology were to be a sort of biomimicry based on truly evolutionary principles, then mistakes and defects should never be repaired but rather allowed to keep working until they self-destruct.

Does Cronin expect his inorganic cells to independently acquire the information to become an entirely new kind of cell—and to do so by making a whole bunch of mistakes? In biology those mistakes in replication are called mutations and evolutionary principles dictate that favorable mutations can accumulate until they produce a whole new kind of organism. However, in the world of engineering, defects are considered flaws, not stepping stones to a whole new plane of existence.

When a defect results in a useful discovery, it does so by losing information and failing to function as originally intended. Take for example the famed serendipitous discovery of post-it notes. Not sticking too well has its advantages for certain applications, but not in most settings where adhesion is needed. An engineer would not remain employed if he simply left a machine un-maintained hoping it would eventually accumulate enough mistakes to become a new kind of improved machine.

Tiny machines that can maintain and clone themselves could have intriguing applications, but to suppose this project will give us insight into how life evolved is nonsense.

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  1. Miras, H. et al. 2010. Unveiling the Transient Template in the Self-Assembly of a Molecular Oxide Nanowheel Science 327:72–74.


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