The search for life may have just taken a massive step forward thanks to a big innovation spearheaded by researchers looking at alternatives to carbon-based life.
Scientists have published a potentially groundbreaking new study in the journal Nature that could lead to an entirely new way to seek out aliens in our universe. The only life forms we know of today are based off of carbon, but scientists argue in the new paper that silicon could form similar chains of molecules and could be the foundation for life outside of our planet.
Scientists have long been fascinated by silicon due to its flexibility as a material and the fact that it is so abundant. However, only carbon has ever been observed as being a building block for life, and the bonding of carbon and silicon has never been produced in nature, only in the laboratory. However, scientists recently used a method called directed evolution to mutate an enzyme to bond the two materials, the first time chemists have used this particular method of directed evolution, according to a California Institute of Technology statement.
It’s a major discovery that suggests that silicon-based life is at least possible, even if we haven’t observed it yet here on Earth. And it’s not just important for the search for alien life, but it also is a big deal for human engineering, potentially leading to medical breakthroughs.
“We decided to get nature to do what only chemists could do–only better,” says Frances Arnold, Caltech’s Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, and principal investigator of the new research, published in the Nov. 24 issue of the journal Science.
“No living organism is known to put silicon-carbon bonds together, even though silicon is so abundant, all around us, in rocks and all over the beach,” says Jennifer Kan, a postdoctoral scholar in Arnold’s lab and lead author of the new study. Silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust.