Friday, February 3, 2012

Carbon Rehab, Darwin-Style.

Photo credit: p.Gordon

Every living thing is hooked on carbon. And once you're hooked, you're really hooked.

Reason for rehab number one: the carbon cycle.

There has been at least four billion years of organic, biological life on this planet all of which grows, lives and presumably evolves with a carbon addiction. The global carbon cycle shows how producers (photosynthetic plants), consumers (who eat them), and decomposers (like fungi) depend on their carbon fix to function. All of the living matter on Earth has evolved into a system of carbon junkies dealing the miracle drug that gives us that extra special energy boost. There's really nothing like it. Or is there?

Photo credit: Jay Reimer

In contrast to organic matter, there's inorganic matter. Essentially: the dead stuff, characterized by their ability to deny the lure of carbon dependency. Now here's a crazy question: What would it mean if advancements in science could make the dead inanimate stuff come alive? What would that mean for the carbon cycle and our carbon addiction?

Chemist Leroy Cronin has been leading a group of researchers in their quest to hold a carbon intervention. As a carbon junkie, this endeavor may sound impossible. But the first step to recovery (as made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous) is admitting we have a problem, which the environmental movement has done for us by calling our attention to the grave situation of global climate change (for more info on climate change over time see NASA's global time-line located: here).

Now how can you get carbon addicts to comprehend matter living without it? For starters, Cronin would ask you to look at your hands resting on your keyboard. By doing so you should probably realize that you are, in fact, alive -- and made of matter. This is a start.

This hypothetical intervention is the result of a pursuit to answer to the question: "What is the minimal amount of matter that can undergo Darwinian evolution?" (You may be thinking, "Wait, evolution? I thought we were talking about rehab? What's going on here?" Give me a minute, I'll explain.).

Biologists will tell you that the answer to this question is simple: The smallest being that can undergo Darwinian evolution is a single cell. A lone bacteria.

Now banish all thoughts and moral concerns you have with the word "evolution." Evolution, although the idea has been around for over one hundred years, remains a bit intangible and has been fogged and redefined by philosophical and metaphysical debates. However, at it's core Darwinian evolution is merely an embodiment of survival of the fittest: offspring compete....and some win.

During his fifteen-minute-speech at the TEDTalk conference last year, Cronin explained how this raises some important questions about biology:
  • What is life?
  • Is biology special?
  • Is matter evolvable?
He then continued to say, "If we answer those question in reverse order, the third question -- Is matter evolvable? -- If we can answer that, then we're going to know how special biology is, and maybe, just maybe, we'll have some idea of what life really is."

In the same way that biologists can manipulate lifeforms by focusing on carbon and organic matter,  chemists manipulate elements and inorganic matter. Can they manipulate to a point that would essentially give life to previously non-living things? This is a serious question with huge consequences. Consider, if your computer in front of you or the pens on your desk could replicate -- that would be a bit a problem, no?

If we're going to create life we should probably define it first. Shrinking down the cellular level, getting on par with that simple bacteria, only would show us that this cell divides, competes, survives, etc. just like everything else. But where did it come from? Why what makes this cell living?

To this point, we honestly don't know. Where did organisms learn to use energy and grow a metabolism? How did we learn to become so dependent on and creative with our use and abuse of carbon? What we do know is that somehow, from some chemical soup of earthly materials came RNA, proteins, DNA and eventually a traceable cellular ancestor who was followed by an evolutionary cycle of carbon fiends that got us to where we are today. But considering our carbon-clouded perspective we can't seem to go past the first visible cell, that one cell that marks the beginning of our sink into carbon addiction and the evolutionary journey of life on planet Earth.

There are two current explanations of where that first cell came from: intelligent design and the emergence of chemical complexity. It's all about that soup of amino-acids that bred life. Pushed by god, extraterrestrials or chemical reactions into life. But what is life? How do we define it? Can we create it?

In the early 1950's Miller-Urey did their famous Frankenstein experiment (summarized here), where they put the necessary components for life in a soup like the one mentioned before and pulsed the expected amount of voltage through it in an attempt to create life. They produced the necessary amino-acids but no cell, no life. So until very recently the question remained the same: What is necessary to create life?

The goal of Cronin's work is to establish an inorganic set of molecules that do not depend on carbon like organic matter. This lego-like-kit of building blocks will have all of the necessary pieces required for information storage without DNA. What they've accomplished in the laboratory so far is the creation of molecular Darwanism in a single cell. A molecular struggle where only the fittest survive. These inorganic cells are called iCells (pictured below).

Photo credit: Cronin Group

In these cells, molecules compete like organisms in Darwinian evolution. Although they are all made of the same stuff, they compete and the fittest molecule shape wins. This is the key: if these scientists can encourage these molecules to communicate and get the right shapes to compete with one another, they will compose larger cells that replicate and compete and so on.

If they can do that, we can establish a general theory of evolution outside of the carbon context. Not only will this tell us more about the origin of life but it has the potential to prove that the universe doesn't need carbon to survive. It's true, we may not need carbon-smack. The universe could theoretically use anything to fill that void.

Modern technology could move this new theory of evolution from theory into practice. We have the necessary technology to control and speed up evolution. Let's say we want to make a little solar powered cell. If all goes as planned, all we would have to do is force this evolution in a box with the light on. Viola: a fresh batch of solar powered cells within a couple hours.

This would reorganize the way we build every man-made thing from the molecular level to sky-scrappers and could provide a quick-fix to building issues that currently stump us. What Cronin and Company are doing is exploiting the the "selfish-gene" to make "selfish-matter", infusing dead inorganic chemistry with life as evolvable matter.

This may sound improbable but at some point life itself may have seemed improbable as well. In September of 2011, Cronin predicted this if they continued at they pace they are working now, they could master this work within two years! In two years these researchers may have the potential to transform the definition of life as we know it.

In the article, "Defining New Architectural Design Principles with 'Living' Inorganic Materials" Cronin reflects on the possibilities of this new paradigm that gives inorganic matter the potential to be "programmed" to sense and react to environmental changes which would allow them to generate power, repair themselves and compete with other inorganic building materials for resources.

This would allow for adaptive environments that would revolutionize the world of energy efficiency and the priorities of space exploration. Building materials used to create energy efficient technologies and buildings could be manufactured to allow control over an environment in regards to temperature, luminosity, humidity and more. We would be building with organisms rather than bricks or nails! Architects would be building adaptive, living, morphologically transient spaces that could develop over time in a life-like and flexible way, rather than another stale, dead building.

As for space exploration, in a few years NASA may be looking for evolvable matter rather than carbon since life as we know it would be no longer carbon-based.

Of course such profound discoveries are not without their dangers. These developments could potentially be misunderstood or used to breed negative systems, potentially producing catastrophic events.

I'd like to close by asking humanity to consider the effects of saying "noo--noo--noo" to carbon rehab and think about the potential gains of Darwinian inspired evolvable matter therapy.

1 comment:

  1. Do you know what kind of material they are using as their non-carbon based DNA equivalent? I couldn't find it while skimming the article link.