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Wednesday, November 18, 1998 Published at 23:56 GMT


Lab molecules mimic life

Like DNA, the lab molecules can copy themselves and change

German scientists have created artificial life in the laboratory. They have made molecules that are capable of copying themselves. Although several labs around the world have done the same, these molecules can evolve as well.

The team of scientists from the University of Bochum hope the molecules can be used to produce new drugs and even new materials.

The self-replicating molecules may also give us clues to how life itself evolved on Earth.

Primitive life was probably a molecule closely related to DNA, called RNA, which managed to replicate itself, and evolved to become more adept at survival and reproduction.

The Germans have gone further than anyone in mimicking this behaviour.

"The difference is that our molecule has the type of growth that is necessary to allow artificial evolution...that is, exponential growth, in which the number of molecules grows in what's known as geometric progression, that is 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. doubling each time," said Professor Gunther von Kiedrowski, who led the research.

No population can go on growing at that rate - there is not room for it. So, just as happens with animals and plants, the toughest, fittest molecules survive and go on replicating and the others are destroyed.

Struggle for existence

The fittest survive in the struggle for existence. As Charles Darwin discovered, this is how evolution works. So Gunther von Kiedrowski has made a molecule which, like RNA on our primitive planet around 3500 million years ago, is able to evolve.

Life on Earth evolved into all its many shapes because those shapes helped it to survive. For example, the giraffe's neck helped it to gather high-up leaves. But the conditions surrounding life evolving in the lab can be changed so that it has to evolve in particular directions in order to survive and replicate.

This controlled evolution can be used to produce useful things, like drugs.

"We want to make them evolve because there are industrial applications for evolving molecules," the professor said.

"Molecules can be evolved into drugs, for example. We hope that in the future we will be able to develop new drugs in this way."

The molecules replicate and evolve on a solid surface, lending weight to the idea that the first life on Earth did the same, rather than evolving in stagnant pools of soupy organic compounds.

The new research is published in Nature.

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