Science fiction has long imagined alien worlds inhabited by silicon-based life, such as the rock-eating Horta from the original Star Trek series. 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 scientists detailed their findings recently in the journal Science.
Carbon is the backbone of every known biological molecule. Life on Earth is based on carbon, likely because each carbon atom can form bonds with up to four other atoms simultaneously. This quality makes carbon well-suited to form the long chains of molecules that serve as the basis for life as we know it, such as proteins and DNA.
Still, researchers have long speculated that alien life could have a completely different chemical basis than life on Earth. For example, instead of relying on water as the solvent in which biological molecules operate, perhaps aliens might depend on ammonia or methane. And instead of relying on carbon to create the molecules of life, perhaps aliens could use silicon.
Carbon and silicon are chemically very similar in that silicon atoms can also each form bonds with up to four other atoms simultaneously. Moreover, silicon is one of the most common elements in the universe. For example, silicon makes up almost 30 percent of the mass of the Earth's crust, and is roughly 150 times more abundant than carbon in the Earth's crust.
Scientists have long known that life on Earth is capable of chemically manipulating silicon. For instance, microscopic particles of silicon dioxide called phytoliths can be found in grasses and other plants, and photosynthetic algae known as diatoms incorporate silicon dioxide into their skeletons. However, there are no known natural instances of life on Earth combining silicon and carbon together into molecules.
Still, chemists have artificially synthesized molecules comprised of both silicon and carbon. These organo-silicon compounds are found in a wide range of products, including pharmaceuticals, sealants, caulks, adhesives, paints, herbicides, fungicides, and computer and television screens. Now, scientists have discovered a way to coax biology to chemically bond carbon and silicon together.
The researchers steered microbes into creating molecules never before seen in nature through a strategy known as 'directed evolution,' which Arnold pioneered in the early 1990s. Just as farmers have long modified crops and livestock by breeding generations of organisms for the traits they want to appear, so too have scientists bred microbes to create the molecules they desire. Scientists have used directed evolutionary strategies for years to create household goods such as detergents, and to develop environmentally-friendly ways to make pharmaceuticals, fuels and other industrial products. (Conventional chemical manufacturing processes can require toxic chemicals; in contrast, directed evolutionary strategies use living organisms to create molecules and generally avoid chemistry that would prove harmful to life.