Studying life-like but nonliving chemistry for inferences about life and how it works

by Marty Crossland on November 13, 2011

At a recent TED conference, researcher Martin Hanczyc gave an intriguing report on his work of creating and studying what he calls “protocells.” He believes that these nonliving chemical packages exhibit some characteristics of living cells, and indeed that does appear to be true. At the beginning of his talk he gives a nice overview of the fundamental charateristics we expect to see in a living organism:

  • A body
  • A metabolism
  • Inheritable information

The first two characteristics might be further operationalized as Movement and Replication. Hanzyzc adds that satisfying each of these characteristics could lead to Evolution, a notion he presents without qualification. I would say that a given, truly living system might be expected and/or enabled to adapt to some aspects of its environment (i.e., microevolution), but many of us who espouse a literal creation model (regardless of the time over which the creation of living creatures occurred) would reject the notion of mutating and changing into entirely new kinds of organisms (i.e., macroevolution), to which Hanczyc appears to be alluding, or at least leaving the door open. Nonetheless, I found his presentation of his findings interesting. He demonstrates how some very simple chemical assemblages (that he is very careful to stress that are strictly nonliving) do indeed exhibit some “behaviors” (in a chemical sense) that closely approximate the first two characteristics of forming bodies and turning resources into motion (i.e., a “metabolism”). And then he even shows us one experiment where the chemical assemblies appear to replicate.

He presents these findings in a very matter of fact way that I find engaging and honest. Although he didn’t take it in this particular direction, it would appear to me that his work might be engaged by honest and ethical researchers to create some testable theory about the viability of certain kinds of postulated synthesis of living material from nonliving material, at least at the chemical level. As such, it seems to be much more useful than the now infamous Miller/Urey experiment reported in 1953, which is now mostly viewed as insignificant due to it now-understood incorrect assumptions about early earth chemistry. However, a careful observer will note that Hanczyc may be precipitously close to having similar assumptions his work regarding available input chemistry in the early Earth. Nonetheless, I found his work of considerable interest to ponder.

Dr. Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe has made some important points about studies such as this one from Dr. Hanczyc regarding how such experiments lend credence to the necessity of design for them to be successful. For more reading on this subject I recommend the article, Artificial Life: Ready or not here it comes.

The TED site characterizes the Dr. Hanczyc’s talk this way:

In his lab, Martin Hanczyc makes “protocells,” experimental blobs of chemicals that behave like living cells. His work demonstrates how life might have first occurred on Earth … and perhaps elsewhere too.


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