London: In an important step towards the possibility of creating synthetic life, scientists have for the first time developed a form of artificial evolution in a simple chemistry set without DNA.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow managed to create an evolving chemical system by using a robotic 'aid' that could be used in the future to 'evolve' new chemicals capable of performing specific tasks.
They used a specially-designed open source robot based upon a cheap 3D printer to create and monitor droplets of oil in water-filled Petri dishes in their lab.
Each droplet was composed from a slightly different mixture of four chemical compounds.
Droplets of oil move in water like primitive chemical machines, transferring chemical energy to kinetic energy.
The researchers' robot used a video camera to monitor, process and analyse the behaviour of 225 differently-composed droplets, identifying a number of distinct characteristics such as vibration or clustering.
The team picked out three types of droplet behaviour - division, movement and vibration - to focus on in the next stage of the research.
They used the robot to deposit populations of droplets of the same composition, then ranked these populations in order of how closely they fit the criteria of behaviour identified by the researchers.
The chemical composition of the 'fittest' population was then carried over into a second generation of droplets, and the process of robotic selection began again.
Over the course of 20 repetitions of the process, the researchers found that the droplets became more stable, mimicking the natural selection of evolution.
"This is the first time that an evolvable chemical system has existed outside of biology," said Professor Lee Cronin, Glasgow's Regius Chair of Chemistry, who led the research.
"Biological evolution has given rise to enormously complex and sophisticated forms of life, and our robot-driven form of evolution could have the potential to do something similar for chemical systems," Cronin said.
"This initial phase of research has shown that the system we've designed is capable of facilitating an evolutionary process, so we could in the future create models to perform specific tasks, such as splitting, then seeking out other droplets and fusing with them," Cronin said.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.