A cheap 3D-printed robot and a PlayStation
camera are hard at work trying to find the origins of life. But
this life isn’t biological, it’s chemical. The system has successfully created
the first “synthetic cells” that can evolve outside of biology,
using a robot to keep them alive. The research could help us
understand how life first appeared billions of years ago.
The system is wonderfully simple. Using the RepRap 3D-printing platform a team of chemists at Glasgow
University created a robot that can do incredibly precise
experiments with no human input. The PlayStation camera then snaps pictures for
“Right now, evolution only applies to complex cells with many
terabytes of information but the open question is where did the
information come from? We have shown that it is possible to evolve
very simple chemistries with little information,” professor Lee
Cronin from the department of chemistry at Glasgow University tells
Creating life from scratch is hard — and we know little about
the origin of life before biology — but the use of simple robots
is speeding up our understanding. The robot places four droplets of
the same chemical composition into a Petri dish and uses the camera
to see what happens. This process is repeated over and over again
with randomly different compositions of droplets.
The droplets behave differently: some shake, some split up, some
clump together and some wobble. Using a computer algorithm the
robot selects the “fittest” molecules and carries these into the
next experiment. The research is detailed in the journal Nature.
“By hacking together this kit we have in effect built a highly
sophisticated machine that can fully automate the life cycle of a
chemical protocell model. We’ve then used the robot to explore lots
of different types of ingredients to try and come up with
interesting recipes that show ‘life-like’ behaviours,” Cronin
Cronin and his team are using four chemicals: 1-penatol,
1-octanol, diethyl phthalate and either dodecane or octanoic acid,
suspended in an alkaline solution. In the most recent experiment an
evolutionary algorithm was used to look at 17 million unique
combinations of reactions. Something that would take humans
hundreds of very boring years is easy work for a cheap, 3D-printed
“This is very cool as it is the first time that
robot-assisted evolution has been done in chemistry. And this is
the first time that chemistry has been evolved outside of biology.
This shows that it is possible, with robotic help, to evolve cells
outside of biology,” professor Cronin says.
The early successes of the experiment give a tantalising glimpse
of primordial “life”. While the system relies on the robot to
evolve it has been speculated that some form of chemical “natural
selection” may have occurred on the ancient Earth.
“Although we used a robot, this can be viewed as a
proxy for a random droplet generator and we can show that
statistically, the chances of droplet evolution happening at the
origin of life is higher than a complete biological cell just
springing into existence,” Cronin explains.
He is hopeful that one day his team will uncover a “god
molecule”, the simplest molecular system that can evolve and go on
to form a living cell: “With the robot system we are a lot closer
to having the hardware to look for it. Now we are building a theory
to focus on what type of chemicals or molecules would be best to
When the god molecule is found we could finally understand how
easy it is to get from non-life to life, from chemistry to
“This will help us understand our place in the Universe better — how common could life be?
Also, will we be able to use inorganic-evolution and
inorganic-biology as the basis for a new living-technology to help
make smart drugs, chemicals and systems for things like cleaning up
radioactive waste or even removing CO2 from the atmosphere,” Cronin