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Discovery of peculiar information strings puts humans closer to creating artificial living systems

23 October 2014, 8:51 am EDT By Dianne Depra Tech Times
Protocells are at the heart of everything. Understanding them provides us with clues as to how life began, aiding in the creation of artificial living systems.  ( University of Southern Denmark )

Life is complex. Scientists have obsessed over understanding its intricacies, bent on creating artificial living systems to revolutionize technology. To create life, one must first understand where it all began. So far, the clues lie in protocells, the oldest precursors to life on Earth. If protocells can be recreated, then scientists will be able to unlock the secrets to creating life.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. No one has been able to make protocells because creating information strings is difficult. Information strings, functioning much like modern DNA strings, are important because they dictate the functions of protocells.

Now, researchers from the University of Southern Denmark's Center for Fundamental Living Technology (FLINT) have discovered some information strings with unusual properties.

Published in the Europhysics Letters journal, their research involved creating a virtual self-organizing autocatalytic network.

According to Steen Rasmussen, head of FLINT, autocatalytic networks function like communities, where each molecule can be considered a citizen who then interacts with others to build societies.

The autocatalytic network that Rasmussen and colleagues created quickly evolved to produce information strings of equal concentrations in all lengths. This is unusual because, first, long strings easily break down in water, and, second, molecules can't be replicated without using modern enzymes.

"In our computer simulation, information strings began to replicate quickly and efficiently as expected. However, we were struck to see that the system quickly developed an equal number of short and long information strings and further that a strong pattern selection on the strings had occurred. We could see that only very specific information patterns on the strings were to be seen in the surviving strings," explained Rasmussen.

Researchers were puzzled about the outcome because they didn't know how a coordinated effort of selection within information strings could occur given that the process was not included in the simulation's program. They deduced that to explain what happened, they had to take a look at how information strings had interacted with each other.

Rasmussen and colleagues are looking for ways of developing technology based on life-like and living processes. If they succeed, they may be able to create technological devices capable of repairing themselves, incorporating both new properties and those that may be re-used.

Aside from Rasmussen, Harold Fellermann and Shinpei Tanaka also participated in the research called "Structure and selection in an autocatalytic binary polymer model."

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