A Scotland-based scientist and his team are closing in on a way to build a life form from scratch, and their work is challenging the fundamental assumption that life only exists in animals, plants and microbes.
A small blue droplet bobs around: it develops spikes, then loses them. After a few quick movements, part of its rim turns straight. ‘It's kind of stressed out,’ explained Professor Lee Cronin, who runs a research group at the University of Glasgow. ‘It's exploring its space.’
A small blue droplet bobs around: it develops spikes, loses them, then part of its rim turns straight. ‘It's exploring its space,’ explained Professor Lee Cronin, University of Glasgow. © Cronin
Apart from the colour, they look a bit like cells seen through a microscope. However, they don’t contain any of the constituents of life – such as complex, carbon-based molecules. But if the energetic 39-year-old can eventually persuade his molecules to feed, reproduce and evolve, he'll be able to propose that we call them life, too – widening the membership beyond the plants, animals and microbes that we’re used to.
‘Just so you’re in no doubt,’ he told a TED conference at European nuclear research centre CERN in Switzerland, ‘we are trying to make life – cells that grow when you feed them, that self-replicate… Life is basically a bunch of nano-machines and they are put there by evolution.’
Prof. Cronin’s ambition comes from pondering one of the great unsolved science mysteries: How did life begin on our planet? Since we're unlikely ever to know for sure, he's using experiments to try to answer a related question: What are some of the ways in which life – or something like it – could be generated from an inorganic soup?
An answer could provide clues as to whether we're alone in the Universe, as we'd have a basic understanding for the conditions for life – something that we could then look for in outer space. We might find that water is not a requirement, for example. In addition, the techniques developed on the way might generate new ways to fabricate drugs.
Still a mystery
The first life on Earth consisted of microorganisms and likely appeared a little under 4 billion years ago – less than a billion years after the planet itself was formed. Not much changed for about three billion years, but then sea plants began to appear, evolving into land plants and moving creatures. The theory of evolution shows how these could eventually develop into complex organisms – such as ourselves.
What's still a mystery is how those original microorganisms came about. A celebrated experiment at the University of Chicago in 1952 simulated the conditions thought to be present on the early Earth. Harold Urey and Stanley Miller threw water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen into a vat, and then jolted the mixture with electric shocks to replicate lightning strikes. After a while amino acids were found – the building blocks of proteins.
Proteins perform a vast array of functions in living organisms, but they are not enough to produce life as we know it. This contains DNA, an exceptionally complicated molecule that manages the tasks we associate with living things, such as metabolism, growth and reproduction. The Urey-Miller experiment was fantastic, said Cronin – ‘But nothing crawled out.’Here is a variety of milli- and microfluidic devices printed in polypropylene using the 3D Touch printer. © Geoffrey J T Cooper/Lee Cronin/University of Glasgow
Cronin has been obsessed with chemical systems since he was seven, when he powered electronic calculators with potato batteries. Now he runs the Cronin Group in Glasgow with 55 staff devoted to researching complex chemical systems and constructing complex molecular architectures.
Most of its projects fit into his larger aim of solving the puzzle of life – something he likens to the recent grand physics projects, such as the understanding of the early Universe and the detection of the Higgs boson at CERN. That confirmed the so-called Standard Model of the basic particles that form the basis of matter, and was seen as a validation of large-scale, networked science projects.
Just like big physics
There’s no way yet to peer into the Earth’s distant past. But Cronin would like to create something like CERN – a way to execute vast numbers of tiny chemical experiments and then have the data crunched by a global network of collaborators.
‘I often joke with funders: I don’t need money – just give me a planet and a very long time,’ he said on the sidelines of the TED conference in CERN. ‘This is really just an engineering problem.’
‘Life is basically a bunch of nano-machines and they are put there by evolution.’
Professor Lee Cronin, The Cronin Group, University of Glasgow, UK
Cronin has a keen sense of the interplay of funding and research. Asking for a grant so that his team could spend years developing life in the lab would not have worked. So he has broken the problem into small, tangible sub-problems. His group is currently working on 12 different projects, each with its own funding and own more limited aim.
They are taking part in the EU-funded MICREAgents project, which brings together researchers from Germany, Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Israel and New Zealand to make microscopic electronically active agents for chemical information processing.
They have also pioneered a way of using 3D printing technology to assemble drugs, which could enable the ‘printing’ of new medicines at the point of need, making them faster and cheaper to produce. It is like building a chemical search engine which could be used to help industry discover new drugs and materials.
Ultimately, however, the technique could enable very cheap chemical apparatus, making possible a vast array of tiny experiments. And one of these might generate something that looks like life. ‘I personally want to be in the lab when we have that moment of discovery. I am addicted to something I have never really experienced – a moment of discovering gravity that shifted our way of thinking about the world. And that's what I want to try and do.’
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