The molecule that makes more of itself

By Michael Day IT’S not alive as such, but British scientists have created a chemical that can replicate itself without any help from catalysts. Douglas Philp at the University of Birmingham and his colleagues have made a simple organic molecule they call R1 copy itself efficiently. There are other systems capable of catalysing their own synthesis, but they don’t work well and none is capable of distinguishing between one variant—or isomer—of a molecule rather than another, says Philp. R1, however, recreates itself in preference to its R2 isomer. When two small chemicals—one called C1 with a positively charged nitrogen atom, and a smaller molecule called C2 with an acid group—are added to a solution containing R1, all three molecules combine to form a complex. This makes C1 and C2 bond to form R1, and the complex of two R1 molecules breaks apart. The cycle can then repeat, Philp told a nanotechnology meeting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London this week. Philp does not regard R1 as a living thing. “Clearly it does not have the metabolic machinery you associate with living things,
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