Ready for silicon-carbon lifeforms?


Click to enlargeLei Chen, Yan Liang

❝ A new study is the first to show that living organisms can be persuaded to make silicon-carbon bonds–something only chemists had done before. Scientists at Caltech “bred” a bacterial protein to make the man-made bonds–a finding that has applications in several industries.

❝ Molecules with silicon-carbon, or organosilicon, compounds are found in pharmaceuticals as well as in many other products, including agricultural chemicals, paints, semiconductors, and computer and TV screens. Currently, these products are made synthetically, since the silicon-carbon bonds are not found in nature.

Well – not on Earth. As far as we know.

❝ The new study demonstrates that biology can instead be used to manufacture these bonds in ways that are more environmentally friendly and potentially much less expensive…

The study is also the first to show that nature can adapt to incorporate silicon into carbon-based molecules, the building blocks of life. Scientists have long wondered if life on Earth could have evolved to be based on silicon instead of carbon…Carbon and silicon are chemically very similar. They both can form bonds to four atoms simultaneously, making them well suited to form the long chains of molecules found in life, such as proteins and DNA…

❝ In the new study, the goal was not just to improve an enzyme’s biological function but to actually persuade it to do something that it had not done before…

After only three rounds, they had created an enzyme that can selectively make silicon-carbon bonds 15 times more efficiently than the best catalyst invented by chemists. Furthermore, the enzyme is highly selective, which means that it makes fewer unwanted byproducts that have to be chemically separated out.

Evolution is an opportunist process. To me, it seems logical that elements with solid mutating capabilities are as likely to evolve into life forms as readily as carbon given a realistic setting.

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