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The Physics of the Origin and Evolution of Life

7 November 2017
Giulio Prisco

Plasma in Vacuum

In the health and life science news released last week, it’s worth highlighting the achievement of Emory University physicists who demonstrated an intriguing case of switching between lifeless and life-like behavior in a simple physical system - particles suspended in a vacuum chamber filled with a plasma, which switch back and forth between crystalline and fluid states.

“We’ve discovered perhaps the simplest physical system that can consistently keep changing behavior over time in a fixed environment,” says Justin Burton, Emory assistant professor of physics. “In fact, the system is so simple we never expected to see such a complex property emerge from it. Our model strips away the complexity of this behavior, providing the minimum ingredients necessary. That provides a base, a starting point, to help understand more complex systems.”

In related (fictional) news, Dan Brown’s recently published novel Origin mentions the research work of MIT physicist Jeremy England, who could have “identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life.”

After reading the news summaries below, step outside and smell the roses. A scientific study has confirmed that spending time outdoors is a direct line to happiness. If you simply take time to notice the nature around you, it will increase your general happiness and well-being.

Switching between lifeless and life-like behavior in simple physical systems. Scientists at Emory University have shown how a system of lifeless particles can become “life-like” by collectively switching back and forth between crystalline and fluid states, even when the environment remains stable. The researchers achieved the first experimental realization of such dynamics with particles suspended in a vacuum chamber filled with a plasma. The research results, described in a study published in Physical Review Letters, could serve as a simple model for the study of emerging properties in non-equilibrium systems.

Special stem cells allow geckos to regrow their tails. Researchers at the University of Guelph have discovered the type of stem cell that is behind the gecko’s ability to regrow its tail, a finding that has implications for spinal cord treatment in humans. The research results, published in Journal of Comparative Neurology, indicate that that the spinal cord of the gecko houses a special type of stem cell known as the radial glia. These stem cells are normally fairly quiet, but jump into action in response to a severe injury, and ultimately make a brand new spinal cord. Once the injury is healed and the spinal cord is restored, the cells return to a resting state.

Toward unveiling the molecular process of aging. Bioscientists at UC San Diego have analyzed molecular processes that influence aging with cutting-edge computational and experimental approaches. A study published in PNAS shows that a complete loss of chromatin silencing - a molecular process that helps protect DNA from damage - leads to accelerated cell aging and death. However, the researchers similarly found that continuous chromatin silencing also leads cells to a shortened lifespan. The researchers are persuaded that further studies will transform our understanding in the basic biology of aging and will lead to new strategies to promote longevity in humans.

Organic-iridium compound kills cancer cells. Researchers at the University of Warwick and Sun-Yat Sen University have discovered that a compound based on iridium kills cancer cells by filling them with singlet exygen (a deadly version of oxygen) when activated by laser light, without harming healthy tissue. The research results, published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, indicate that an organic-iridium compound, activated by shining visible laser light through the skin onto a laboratory model of lung cancer, had penetrated and infused singlet oxygen into every layer of the tumor, killing it.

NanoDeg research platform controls protein levels in cells. Scientists at Rice University have discovered that a nanoscale antibody first found in camels, combined with a protein-degrading molecule, is an effective new platform to control protein levels in cells. Based on a study published in ACS Synthetic Biology, the researchers developed a platform dubbed NanoDeg, which allows to target specific proteins in a cell and strictly regulate their degradation. According to the scientists, this research will permit a better understanding of cellular dynamics and have applications in the design of synthetic gene circuits.

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