Living Organisms Make Carbon-Silicon Bonds For The First Time

Posted: Nov 25 2016, 2:10am CST | by , in Latest Science News


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Living Organisms Make Carbon-Silicon Bonds for the First Time
The structure of cytochrome c protein from Rhodothermus marinus showing iron (red) bound near the center. Researchers mutated amino acids in the region colored pink to improve the carbon-silicon bond forming ability of the protein. Credit: Frances Arnold lab/Caltech
  • Carbon-Silicon Bonds Comes to Life for the First Time

Living creatures have proven to be able to make carbon-silicon bonds. This was demonstrated in a lab setting recently.

A novel study shows that living organisms can be coaxed and cajoled into making carbon-silicon bonds. This is something that only chemists were able to do in the past.

Yet now it is appearing in the context of life itself. Researchers at Caltech made a bacterial protein produce these otherwise man-made bonds. This finding can be applied in several fields.

Carbon-silicon compounds are commonly found in pharma drugs and other stuff such as agrochemicals, paints, semiconductors, computer interfaces and TV screens.

These bonds are normally found in a synthetic form since they are ordinarily not found in Nature. However, this novel study shows that these bonds can be produced biologically so that they are more benign in nature for the environment and cost less too.

It was all a matter of allowing Nature to do what chemists normally did. The only difference is that Nature did it better.

"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 November 24 issue of the journal Science.

What Nature does is undergo adaptation in order to incorporate silicon into carbon molecules.

Scientists have been surmising since eons whether life could have been silicon-based instead of the usual carbon-based forms in which it is imbedded. Sci-fi authors have explored this topic in depth with alien life forms being made out of silicon.

The Horta aliens shown on Star Trek are a prime example of this. Carbon and silicon are based on the same chemical formulas. They can form bonds which can then be linked into proteins and DNA.

Yet no living organism has been shown to use silicon in its makeup. Although silicon is very common and found on the beaches in the form of sand, it is hardly used in living organisms.

Silicon is the second most common element on the earth’s surface. The researchers employed directed evolution in order to create better enzymes in the lab.

The method used was artificial selection. This was a technique similar to what breeders use to modify all sorts of plants and animals. Enzymes are catalysts. Mutations are forced in the enzymes.

Over a period of time the synthetic evolution takes place. These enzymes have already been used in detergents. They have also been utilized to make fuels and pharmaceutical drugs.

Cytochrome C was used in the experiment. It was used to create carbon-silicon bonds. This is the first instance of human beings using natural processes to create something which Nature could have made herself.

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