Is Metal the New Building Block of Life?

The focus of Lee Cronin’s work is understanding and controlling self-assembly and self-organisation in chemistry to develop functional molecular and nano-molecular chemical systems; linking architectural design with function and recently engineering system-level functions.

Lee Cronin's Lab Searches for Inorganic Building Blocks of Life

Lee Cronin's Lab Searches for Inorganic Building Blocks of Life

In other words, the 38-year old organic chemist started with the very predictable inorganic molecules as a basis to build nano-machines. Somewhere in the process he began to create self-assembling structures that also began to self-oranize and to evolve. He was on his way to creating inorganic life.

In the process he has created large inorganic, metallic cells from polyoxometalates assembled into bubbly spheres. These non-biological cells let chemicals in and out of their membranes. Some have been taught to photosynthesize.

First Inorganic Cell, iCHELL

First Inorganic Cell, iCHELL

And 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.”

He tells the BBC, “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 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.”

His team submitted a paper on Modular Redox-Active Inorganic Chemical Cells (iCHELLs) to the journal Angewandte Chemie.

In his TED Talk Making matter come alive in July, Cronin says that in his lab he is recreating the famous Urey-Miller chemistry experiment which led to the discovery of amino acids, the building blocks of life in the 1950s.

In 2011, Cronin’s own lab looks like something out of Frankenstein as he sends electricity through bubbling flasks filled with chemicals trying to find similar inorganic building blocks of life.

He postulates that we emerged from a primordial soup of chemicals before we had RNA, DNA or proteins. Before we became humans, our genetic makeup had to be contained in cells. Once there it could become self-replicating and evolve into our ancestors and eventually into us.

He is testing this hypothesis in the lab by using an inorganic “LEGO kit” of molecules. Taking the three or four building blocks, he and his team of collaborators in his lab and around the world are aggregating them all together into thousands of large nano-molecular molecules.

These molecules are about the same size as DNA and proteins but they contain no carbon, the element in all living things. The one piece he was lacking was containers to hold the molecules. Much like biology, he needed to make some cells.

So Cronin and his team made iCHELLS to hold these new inorganic molecules.

Once he achieved that over the summer, he began to conduct mini chemistry experiments inside the inorganic cells.

And now he is searching for a way to activate the process of Darwinian evolution within his iCHELLS by getting inorganic molecules to compete with one another.

He says, “Evolution cannot be cut apart. You have to find the fitness function.”

He says if this theory holds true then he will be able to take the idea of the selfish gene — a biological system that wants to survive and replicate — one step further to the notion of selfish matter.

Cronin’s effort to make inorganic matter able to evolve on its own is his way to build a more comprehensive definition of life.

He says, “We are really becoming very close to understanding the key steps that makes dead stuff come alive.”

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