Artificial life and biomimetic nanotechnology

Last week’s New Scientist contained an article on the prospects for creating a crude version of artificial life (teaser here), based mainly on the proposals of Steen Rasmussen’s Protocell project at Los Alamos. Creating a self-replicating system with a metabolism, capable of interacting with its environment and evolving, would be a big step towards a truly radical nanotechnology, as well as giving us a lot of insight into how our form of life might have begun.

More details of Rasmussen’s scheme are given here, and some detailed background information can be found in this review in Science (subscription required), which discusses a number of approaches being taken around the world (see also this site, , with links to research around the world, also run by Rasmussen). Minimal life probably needs some way of enclosing the organism from the environment, and Rasmussen proposes the most obvious route of using self-assembled lipid micelles as his “protocells”. The twist is that the lipids are generated by light activation of an oil-soluble precursor, which effectively constitutes part of the organism’s food supply. Genetic information is carried in a peptide nucleic acid (PNA), which reproduces itself in the presence of short precursor PNA molecules, which also need to be supplied externally. The claim is that ‘this is the first explicit proposal that integrates genetics, metabolism, and containment in one chemical system”.

It’s important to realise that this, currently, is just that – a proposal. The project is just getting going, as is a closely related European Union funded project PACE (for programmable artificial cell evolution). But it’s a sign that momentum is gathering behind the notion that the best way to implement radical nanotechnology is to try and emulate the design philosophies that cell biology uses.

If this excites you enough that you want to invest your own money in it, the associated company Protolife is looking for first round investment funding. Meanwhile, a cheaper way to keep up with developments might be to follow this new blog on complexity, nanotechnology and bio-computing from Exeter University based computer scientist Martyn Amos.

2 Responses to “Artificial life and biomimetic nanotechnology”

  1. jim moore says:

    For those of us who need to see things to understand them I would like to recommend a terrific little book The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell (Springer-Verlag publisher). It contains many illustrations of cellular machinery drawn at consistent levels of magnification. The illustrations of E-coli beautiful and informative.

    And speaking of E-coli nanodot has a link to some amazing work being done in Japan on the flagellum and its motor. ( http://www.npn.jst.go.jp/index.html ) Make sure you look at movie # 5. All I can say is WOW

  2. Richard Jones says:

    I agree entirely, it’s a great book. You might also want to look at David Goodsell’s latest book, “Bionanotechnology – lessons from Nature” (Wiley, 2004).