Dec 9, 2014 | By Alec

It hardly needs to be repeated here that 3D printing is an excellent manufacturing technology to create unique, never before seen shapes and breathe life to hitherto impossible designs. But to print evolution itself? To 3D print a process of design and redesign? Surely that has to be just a piece of fanciful fiction.

Well, it isn't, as a team of Scottish scientists led by professor Lee Cronin of Glasgow University's chemistry department is doing just that. Using a cheap, self-assembled and modified RepRap 3D printer, his team of chemists is working hard at discovering the origins of life itself. To do so, they've printed a series of synthetic cells that can evolve outside of biology (though they do need a robot to keep them alive). By mapping the behaviour of these synthetic, chemical cells through an algorithm that functions as natural selection, they hope to chart exactly what happened during those first precious moments when life was created billions of years ago.

Barring a handful of faith-based initiatives, scientists have now almost universally accepted evolution as the process that shaped all life around us. That life is biological, but there must've have been some point in the past when chemical substances first became biological. And hopefully, these 3D printed cells will help Cronin and his team to discover what that process was like.

As Cronin told reporters of Wired, 'Right now, evolution only applies to complex cells with many terabytes of information but the open question is where did the information come from? We have shown that it is possible to evolve very simple chemistries with little information.'

To do so, they have created a robotically-controlled RepRap set-up that experiments with synthetic cells and collects all that data for further analysis. It even uses a PlayStation camera to snap photos of their synthetic evolution process.

Basically, the robot extrudes droplets of a chemical composition into a Petri dish and tracks its development. The droplets consist of four different chemicals: 1-penatol, 1-octanol, diethyl phthalate and either dodecane or octanoic acid, suspended in an alkaline solution. This is extruded over and over and over again, each time with different results. Over the millions of experiments the robot performs, it has already become apparent that the various printed droplets behave differently, and clump together to form different compositions.

You can see the printing process in action here:

The robot algorithmically selects the "fittest" molecules (after all, it is survival of the fittest) for other experiments. 'By hacking together this kit we have in effect built a highly sophisticated machine that can fully automate the life cycle of a chemical protocell model. We've then used the robot to explore lots of different types of ingredients to try and come up with interesting recipes that show 'life-like' behaviours,' Cronin explains. 'This is very cool as it is the first time that robot-assisted evolution has been done in chemistry.'

The robot is thus effectively recreating the process of evolution in its primordial stage, as the chemically created synthetic cells can be seen to evolve under the guidance of 'robotic selection'. As Cronin explained, this is not unlike the process that happened at the first few steps of life. 'we can show that statistically, the chances of droplet evolution happening at the origin of life is higher than a complete biological cell just springing into existence.'

Now you might be wondering where this process will lead to. Will the robot just discover life? Well, Cronin and his team are hopeful that this algorithmic selection process will eventually uncover the inappropriately called 'god molecule'. This would be a very very basic molecular system that can theoretically make the step into a biological, living cell. The origin of life; 3D printed life. 'This will help us understand our place in the Universe better. how common could life be?'

And this isn't just done for the record books, as it could also have a host of practical applications. Knowing how biological cells are created would be tremendously useful in making very specialized smart drugs and chemicals. Cronin even envisions using it for things like 'cleaning up radioactive waste or even removing CO2 from the atmosphere.'

While evolution itself thus hasn't yet been printed, this Scottish RepRap set-up is thus being used to recreate an ancient process that humans would not be able to mimic. If it would now only discover the 'God molecule', 3D printing's reputation would be set in stone.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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Elisabeth wrote at 12/15/2014 9:53:58 PM:

Please print me a kidney

Questioning wrote at 12/10/2014 2:56:21 AM:

"To do so, they have CREATED a robotically-controlled RepRap set-up that experiments"...seems more like proving you need intelligence to start, rather than random evolutionary events...

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