Researchers 'Breed' Silicon-Carbon Bonds From Proteins, A New Model For Alien Life?

First Posted: Nov 28, 2016 02:36 AM EST

For the first time in history, a new study has shown that a living organism can make a silicon-carbon bond. This is something that only chemists had done before, making science fiction a step closer to becoming reality.

A team of scientists at Caltech has "bred" a bacterial protein to have the ability to make the man-made bonds. This breakthrough discovery could significantly impact many industries such as pharmaceuticals and technology.

In the study published in the journal Science, a team of scientists revealed a groundbreaking technique to persuade silicon to bond naturally with carbon. The research, which bagged Caltech's Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) grand prize, shows that biology can be used to manufacture these environment-friendly and more affordable silicon bonds.

"We decided to get nature to do what only chemists could do-only better," Frances Arnold, Caltech's Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, said in a press release by Caltech.

Silicon Is Abundant On Earth But It Does Not Naturally Bond, Until Now

Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth's crust. However, it does not naturally bond to carbon. With the new discovery of the scientists, it would be more sustainable and cheaper to create the same bonds using biology.

To land to their findings, the researchers -- Frances Arnold, Russell Lewis, Kai Chen and Jennifer Kan -- created the bond using a process of artificial selection dubbed as directed evolution, which was pioneered by Arnold in the 1990s. They started with a protein found in the genomic sequence of Rhodothermus marinus. Dubbed as cytochrome c enzyme, this protein is responsible for transporting electrons around the cell.

The scientists modified the DNA coding for the protein and tested these mutant enzymes for their ability to make organosilicon compounds. After three rounds, they created an enzyme that can make silicon-carbon bonds 15 times more effectively and efficiently than the best catalysts made by chemists in the laboratory.

Human Engineering And Alien Life

Could this new discovery open the door to a wide spectrum of possibilities for human engineering and, perhaps, alien life?

According to the Christian Science Monitor, silicon has long intrigued scientists across the globe. This is because it is so abundant but life on Earth is carbon-based. However, in the past, scientists have successfully and artificially bonded silicon and carbon, no known organism has been known to create the bond naturally.

Though these carbon-silicon bonds have not been seen before, this is the first time they have ever been observed in nature. This new discovery could be the missing piece to understanding silicon-based life in the universe.

The future plans for this silicon-based organisms are still unclear. However, the researchers said that they do not expect to see silicon lifeforms on Earth anytime soon but it could be used in various scenarios -- pharmacy, agriculture and fuel specialization.

"This is something that people talk about, dream about, wonder about. Any pharmaceutical chemist could read this on Thursday and on Friday decide they want to take this as a building block that they could potentially use," Annaliese Franz at the University of California, Davis, said as reported by New Scientist.

"One can start to dream about what happens when you put silicon into life," she added.

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