Could alien life be made from silicon instead of carbon?


Science fiction has long imagined alien worlds inhabited by silicon-based life…Now, scientists have for the first time shown that nature can evolve to incorporate silicon into carbon-based molecules, the building blocks of life on Earth.

As for the implications these findings might have for alien chemistry on distant worlds, “my feeling is that if a human being can coax life to build bonds between silicon and carbon, nature can do it too,” said the study’s senior author Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The researchers steered microbes into creating molecules never before seen in nature through a strategy known as ‘directed evolution’…Arnold and her team…focused on enzymes, the proteins that catalyze or accelerate chemical reactions. Their aim was to create enzymes that could generate organo-silicon compounds.

In addition to showing that the mutant enzyme could self-generate organo-silicon compounds in a test tube, the scientists also showed that E. coli bacteria, genetically engineered to produce the mutant enzyme within themselves, could also create organo-silicon compounds. This result raises the possibility that microbes somewhere could have naturally evolved the ability to create these molecules.

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