Scientists create a 'lifelike' material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Scientists create a 'lifelike' material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce
Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.

Cornell University engineers have created an artificial material that has three key traits of life — metabolism, self-assembly and organization. The engineers were able to pull off such a feat by using DNA in order to make machines from biomaterials that would have characteristics of alive things.

Dubbing their process DASH for "DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical" materials, the scientists made a DNA material that has metabolism — the set of chemical processes that convert food into energy necessary for the maintenance of life.

The goal for the scientists is not to create a lifeform but a machine with lifelike characteristics, with Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering, pointing out "We are not making something that's alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before."

The major innovation here is the programmed metabolism that is coded into the DNA materials. The set of instructions for metabolism and autonomous regeneration allows the material to grow on its own.

In their paper, the scientists described the metabolism as the system by which "the materials comprising life are synthesized, assembled, dissipated, and decomposed autonomously in a controlled, hierarchical manner using biological processes."

To keep going, a living organism must be able to generate new cells, while discarding old ones and waste. It is this process that the Cornell scientists duplicated using DASH. They devised a biomaterial that can arise on its own from nanoscale building blocks. It can arrange itself into polymers first and into mesoscale shapes after.

The DNA molecules in the materials were duplicated hundreds of thousands of times, resulting in chains of repeating DNA that were a few millimeters in length. The solution with the reaction was injected into a special microfluidic device that facilitated biosynthesis.

This flow washed over the materials, causing DNA to synthesize its own strands. The material even had its own locomotion, with the front end growing while the tail end was degrading, making it creep forth.

This fact allowed the researchers to have portions of the materials competing against each other.

"The designs are still primitive, but they showed a new route to create dynamic machines from biomolecules. We are at a first step of building lifelike robots by artificial metabolism," explained Shogo Hamada, the lead and co-corresponding author of the paper as well as a lecturer and research associate in the Luo lab. "Even from a simple design, we were able to create sophisticated behaviors like racing. Artificial metabolism could open a new frontier in robotics."
Generated DASH patterns.

Credit: Shogo Hamada / Cornell University

The material that was created lasted for two cycles of synthesis and degradation but the longevity can be extended, think the researchers. This could lead to more generations of the material, eventually resulting in a "lifelike self-reproducing machines," said Hamada.

He also foresees that the system can result in a "self-evolutionary possibility."

Next for the material? The engineers are looking at how to get it to react to stimuli and be able to seek out light or food all on its own. They also want it to be able to avoid harmful stimuli.

​ Check out the video of Professor Luo explaining their achievement here —

You can check out the new paper "Dynamic DNA Material With Emergent Locomotion Behavior Powered by Artificial Metabolism," in the April 10th issues of Science Robotics.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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