New discoveries on carbon silicon bonding suggest that the ability to goad the latter element to naturally bond with the former could change the way we think about the possibility of alien life outside of our planet.
A report from the Christian Science Monitor detailed a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science, which shows how silicon can be made to have a natural bond with carbon. The publication describes the new discovery as one that can lead to a “wide range of possibilities for both human engineering and alien life.”
The researchers facilitated the unusual carbon silicon bonding through a technique known as directed evolution, where they mutated the enzyme cytochrome c, using it as an agent to bond both elements together. Cytochrome c can be found in a form of bacteria found in Icelandic hot springs and is capable of creating chemical bonds between carbon and silicon that are 15 times more efficient than synthetic agents.
Study lead author Jennifer Kan, a postdoctoral researcher from Caltech, said in a press release that the catalyst has other advantages over its synthetic equivalents.
“This iron-based, genetically encoded catalyst is nontoxic, cheaper, and easier to modify compared to other catalysts used in chemical synthesis. The new reaction can also be done at room temperature and in water.”
The Daily Mail added in a separate report that directed evolution is also used to create enzymes for common, everyday products, such as detergents. And it does seem as if cytochrome c can facilitate carbon silicon bonding in a variety of industrial uses and could allow manufacturers to rely less on precious metals and toxic agents, both of which are key features of synthetic techniques.
Further, introducing cytochrome c to E. coli could allow the blending of carbon and silicon for industrial compounds, with these E. coli biofactories “potentially (knitting) together the elements better than chemists (can).”
A report from Yahoo News (c/o International Business Times) mentioned two specific applications – use in the pharmaceutical space and in the creation of semiconductors. The efficiency of the bond and the ease in which it can be modified makes it a feasible alternative to conventional techniques, yet those potential applications are just part of what makes the discovery an amazing one.
— Sarah Jones (@i_heart_science) November 27, 2016
Directed evolution was created by study co-author Frances Arnold, also from Caltech, back in the 1990s, and the Christian Science Monitor noted that she had received the Millennium Technology Prize for coming up with the process. This technique has been used in previous years to create more effective enzymes that can be used to modify animals and plants for commercial food and fuel respectively. But the new study marks the first time scientists have been able to take carbon and silicon and bond them together. And that’s where things get interesting, as both elements can form four bonds, and serve as “ideal potential building blocks of life.”
With the possibility of a natural bonding process between carbon and silicon established, the researchers believe that their work could force others to rethink their views on alien life models. Earlier studies had theorized that alien life, should it exist, may not have carbon as a primary feature like life on Earth does, and had found it hard to create silicon-based compounds that are very similar, if not exactly the same in nature as carbon-based equivalents.
According to Arnold, the discovery of natural carbon silicon bonding is a sign that we may have underestimated nature’s ability to adapt.
“The DNA-encoded catalytic machinery of the cell can rapidly learn to promote new chemical reactions when we provide new reagents and the appropriate incentive in the form of artificial selection. Nature could have done this herself if she cared to.”
[Featured Image by Leszek Bogdewicz/Shutterstock]