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I have heard that scientists have already produced synthetic materials that reproduce. How do they do that? By what materials? In what conditions? What is their shape? Can you give me some information about that?
Question Date: 2007-06-08
Answer 1:

Well, sort-of. I'm curious to know where you have heard this!

First off, biological membranes are made of phospholipids - that is, triglyceride molecules that have two fatty acid chains attached to them and onephosphate ion. For reasons having to do with weak chemical interactions called Van der Wall's forces, these molecules tend to form bubbles and other membranes when placed in water. Now, proteins placed inside of these things have been observed to exhibit metabolism, making more of the protein and more of the phospholipids by turning other things in the environment into more of themselves. These "other things" in this case includes other already-produced proteins; proteins that can turn other proteins into themselves are called prions, and what they do is they take an existing protein and change its shape without changing its chemical formula. Obviously, this means that the prion needs to have the protein available and be of the same chemical composition itself, since it cannot create atoms. But in any case, these protien-phospholipid complexes, called coacervates, can, if they have the right stuff in them, get larger, and eventually break up into more of themselves. This division is uncontrolled, however, and they can only"live" off of material that has already been made for them by living cells, rather like viruses.

So far, nobody has managed to create anything that is able to regulate its own metabolism or take molecules formed by nonliving processes and turn them into more of itself. That, it seems to me, is something of a prerequisite for creating life - while we can argue that viruses and prions are alive, perhaps, they are alive only through the presence of living cells, and cannot exhibit life without them. The question of how life started is how cells got started. That said, coacervates DO provide an interesting possibility of how REAL life might have gotten started.

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