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Is it possible to build life using entirely different building blocks?

An overview of Sijbren Otto's work

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Sijbren Otto © Reyer Boxem

In 2010, UG Professor of Systems Chemistry Sijbren Otto accidentally discovered molecules that copy themselves. Since then, he has been working on artificial life in the lab. In this overview, you can read all about the progress he has already made and what he’s still working towards.

The goal

Three functions of life undergo evolution
The three functions of life undergo evolution

Otto’s goal is to build life using building blocks that are entirely different from life as we know it. No DNA, no RNA, no proteins. Otto studies the functions that these familiar building blocks serve and rebuilds them: self-replication (to make copies of itself), metabolism (to maintain itself), and compartmentalization (to be separate from the outside world). Evolution can take it from there, to further develop this primitive form of life.  

Self-replication (2010)

It all starts with a serendipitous finding. In a mixture, Otto encounters molecules that start organizing themselves into rings, and then stack on top of each other. When these stacks of rings break, each part regrows. This process is essentially the copying of information. Otto calls these stacked rings replicators

Mutation (2016)

As it turns out, the replicators that Otto discovered by accident, are capable of much more. When the mixture contains various building blocks, the replicators sometimes mutate: the copy slightly differs from the original. This makes paves the way for natural selection based on Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Metabolism (2020)

Otto’s replicators turn out to have a surprising property: they can speed up multiple other reactions. They use this to produce new building blocks that are needed for replication. This way, the replicators maintain their own existence: a form of metabolism.

Darwinian Evolution (2023)

Darwinian evolution
First steps towards evolution

By letting part of his mixture continuously flow away, Otto introduces death into the system. Only those replicators that can grow and copy quickly enough can continue to exist. The replicators adapt to their environment, and even influence it to some extent. These are the first steps towards continuous Darwinian evolution – though the opportunities for unexpected changes are currently still small.

Future plans

Darwinian evolution
Darwinian evolution

The replicators still need some kind of boundary that separates them from the outside world, in such a way that the replicators and their boundary copy themselves as a single unit. And Otto wants to work towards continuous and meaningful Darwinian evolution, in which the system develops something that was not put in by the researchers themselves.

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