Robot ‘chemputer’ gives scientists clues to origin of life

New system creates complex chemicals similar to those that existed before organic life

A ‘chemical search engine’ is being used by scientists at the University of Glasgow to help synthesise chemicals that existed before life on Earth. Photograph: Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A ‘chemical search engine’ is being used by scientists at the University of Glasgow to help synthesise chemicals that existed before life on Earth. Photograph: Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

 

A robot “chemputer” is helping scientists discover possible clues to the origins of life on Earth..

The system acts like a “chemical search engine” to produce complex chemicals similar to those thought to have existed on the young planet before organic life took hold.

The work is the joining of two projects and is underway at the University of Glasgow led by regius chair of chemistry Prof Lee Cronin.

His group developed a 3d printer-inspired robot that can quickly synthesise complex chemicals similar to those found in life today. They also created a chemical search engine that can search large numbers of possible chemical combinations.

The group used these to generate simple building blocks and then recombine them to see the result.

“Very quickly, we found that it was possible to assemble the building blocks just like the way we find them in modern proteins ,” Prof Cronin says.

“Our chemical search engine is able to search large amounts of chemical space, similar to how systems like Google search the internet. Instead of reading HTML however the system performs chemical reactions.”

Details of their findings were published on Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications.

It has long been assumed that the “chemical soup” that swamped the early Earth somehow became more complex, eventually resulting in self-replicating molecules that were a precursor for life.

“The problem is that the origin of life was thought to be so complicated that we are not sure if there was enough time to make such complex molecules or understand the mechanisms by which they were produced,” he said.

They discovered that in fact small protein fragments could be made longer and were more easily formed than expected and began to look more life-like.

They also found that longer length and complexity could form in a simple way by heating and cooling the chemicals as they passed through wet and dry conditions.

“We believe this is a significant finding which could suggest that the beginning of life on Earth was a simpler process than we previously expected,” he said.

But this in turn lends support to the notion that the universe is probably teeming with life given the readiness of these chemicals to combine in the right conditions.

It may also become possible to demonstrate new types of life in the lab, he believes.