Chemist claims oil droplets mimic early life

February 24th, 2011 - 1:40 pm ICT by ANI  

Chemist claims oil droplets mimic early life

London, Feb 24 (ANI): A new study by a chemist claims that oil droplets mimic early life in the manner they that creep purposefully through their watery environment, metabolize fuel, sense their surroundings and replicate.

Martin Hanczyc at the University of Southern Denmark put oil droplets in a highly alkaline solution (pH 12) and fuelled them with a chemical called oleic anhydride, which converts to oleic acid on contact with water.

This reaction lowered the pH at the boundary of droplets, creating an uneven surface tension that caused them to move autonomously through the liquid by ’sensing’ their environment.

Adding fuel to the water along with a chemical catalyst in the oil causes the droplets to absorb fuel from their surroundings.

“You get immortal droplets. As long as you feed them, they keep moving,” Nature quoted Hanczyc as saying.

He added that the drops tend to circle each other without touching, which Hanczyc sees as evidence for rudimentary chemical communication.

Hanczyc and his colleagues have also shown that the droplets’ past actions can influence their future ones, which could be interpreted as a primitive form of memory.

To compare this to life on primitive Earth, Hanczyc is now recreating his droplets using mineral oil and the simple organic compound hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which reacts with water to form biological precursors such as amino acids and nucleobases.

Geologist Norm Sleep from Stanford University in California says that he isn’t aware of any examples of such autonomous structures forming in geological systems, but doesn’t rule out that it could happen.

But according to biochemists, because the drops contain no genetic information, they would never develop into anything more.

“You don’t have DNA or RNA, but the necessary information is embedded in the chemistry of the system,” countered Hanczyc.

Jack Szostak, a biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, is generally thought to be closest to building an artificial life form in the lab.

“It’s an interesting, simple system,” he says. “I don’t see any relevance to the origin of life. But you never know.”

Hanczyc described his work at a Royal Society discussion on the origins of life, held in London on 21 February. (ANI)

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