Protocells and Artificial Life
In this talk, Martin Hanczyc outlines a series of experiments where artificial protocells synthesised from oil and clay display primitive kinds of behaviour associated with life.
He begins by framing his working assumptions - that there exists a continuum between the living and the non-living - and identifies a few key features of a living system: a self-contained body, working metabolism, and inheritable information. The body coupled with metabolism allows an organism to move and interact with its environment, and all three together allow for replication and evolution.
While a cell might contain on the order of 1,000,000 different kinds of molecules, he was able to synthesise “life-like” protocells from just five. Oil disassociates with water and forms globules. These oil globules make up his protocell bodies, while a type of chemically active clay forms the basis of a metabolic system - extracting energy from the environment in order to “do something”. What can his protocells do? He shows us a few neat videos:
- A single protocell moves around its environment (a petri dish)
- It seek out ‘food’
- Multiple protocells interact with each other - “dance”.
- On a rare occasion, two cells of a different variety fuse, taking on qualities of both parent cells.
- Hybridised protocells are observed dividing.
These are really cool experiments. Though his humble artificial organisms are by no means Frankenstein’s monster, they go a long way to help us understand what questions we should be asking about what makes something living as opposed to non-living. They show that certain fundamental properties of the complex life we see around us can be observed in relatively simple chemical systems.