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ISSN
1064-5462
E-ISSN
1530-9185
2014 Impact factor:
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Artificial Life

Summer 2003, Vol. 9, No. 3, Pages 269-316
(doi: 10.1162/106454603322392479)
© 2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Bridging Nonliving and Living Matter
Article PDF (8.54 MB)
Abstract

Assembling non-biological materials (geomaterials) into a proto-organism constitutes a bridge between nonliving and living matter. In this article we present a simple step-by-step route to assemble a proto-organism. Many pictures have been proposed to describe this transition within the origins-of-life and artificial life communities, and more recently alternative pictures have been emerging from advances in nanoscience and biotechnology. The proposed proto-organism lends itself to both traditions and defines a new picture based on a simple idea: Given a set of required functionalities, minimize the physicochemical structures that support these functionalities, and make sure that all structures self-assemble and mutually enhance each other's existence. The result is the first concrete, rational design of a simple physicochemical system that integrates the key functionalities in a thermodynamically favorable manner as a lipid aggregate integrates proto-genes and a proto-metabolism. Under external pumping of free energy, the metabolic processes produce the required building blocks, and only specific gene sequences enhance the metabolic kinetics sufficiently for the whole system to survive. We propose an experimental implementation of the proto-organism with a discussion of our experimental results, together with relevant results produced by other experimental groups, and we specify what is still missing experimentally. Identifying the missing steps is just as important as providing the road map for the transition. We derive the kinetic and thermodynamic conditions of each of the proto-organism subsystems together with relevant theoretical and computational results about these subsystems. We present and discuss detailed 3D simulations of the lipid aggregation processes. From the reaction kinetics we derive analytical aggregate size distributions, and derive key properties of the metabolic efficiency and stability. Thermodynamics and kinetics of the ligation directed self-replication of the proto-genes is discussed, and we summarize the full life cycle of the proto-organism by comparing size, replication time, and energy with the biomass efficiency of contemporary unicells. Finally, we also compare our proto-organism picture with existing origins-of-life and protocell pictures.

By assembling one possible bridge between nonliving and living matter we hope to provide a piece in the ancient puzzle about who we are and where we come from.