Team creates ‘living’ cells made of metal

Scottish scientists say they’ve taken the first steps towards creating a form of life based on inorganic elements.

All life on earth is based on carbon in the form of amino acids, nucleotides, sugars and so on, says Professor Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow.

“What we are trying do is create self-replicating, evolving inorganic cells that would essentially be alive,” he says. “You could call it inorganic biology.”

His team’s created inorganic-chemical-cells, or iCHELLS, using large ‘polyoxometalates’ made of metal atoms linked to oxygen and phosphorus.

These can be compartmentalised by creating internal membranes that control the passage of materials and energy through them. This means that several chemical processes can be isolated within the same cell – just as in biological cells.

The cells can also store electricity, and could potentially be used in medical applications, for example as sensors or to confine chemical reactions.

The research is part of a project aimed at demonstrating that inorganic chemical compounds can self-replicate and evolve, just as carbon-based cells do.

“The grand aim is to construct complex chemical cells with life-like properties that could help us understand how life emerged and also to use this approach to define a new technology based upon evolution in the material world – a kind of inorganic living technology,” says Professor Cronin.

“If successful, this would give us some incredible insights into evolution and show that it’s not just a biological process. It would also mean that we would have proven that non carbon-based life could exist and totally redefine our ideas of design.”