Scientists Create Near-Living Crystal


Physicists at NYC University have this month published the results of their experiment on the lifelike behaviours of a newly-synthesized chemical compound. The scientists' aim was to investigate self-organizing collective behaviours such as those seen in flocks of birds and schools of fish. They stated that the goal of the work was “to study how complicated collective behaviors arise from simple individual properties."

Taking hematite (a compound of iron and oxygen) as the particle basis, they added a spherical polymer coat. Leaving a corner of the hematite particle exposed and subjecting the compound to blue light, the particles began moving, breaking apart and reforming in a ‘lifelike’ manner. The physicists have uploaded this clip displaying the behaviour of the "light-activated colloidal surfers."



One of the physicists involved, Chaikin acknowledges that a definition of life is a difficult one to make. He comments that one definition of life is possessing metabolism, the ability to self-replicate and the ability to move and that the ‘colloidal surfers’ satisfy two of these criteria. They lack only the ability to self-replicate. Fellow physicist Palacci highlights the blurred boundaries between what can be classified as ‘living’ and what may be called ‘not living’ when he says “Here we show that with a simple, synthetic active system, we can reproduce some features of living systems…I do not think this makes our systems alive, but it stresses the fact that the limit between the two is somewhat arbitrary.”

With a better comprehension of the process at work, scientists could create new and improved materials. Substances including paint, milk, gelatin, glass, and porcelain are all made up of colloidal dispersions and could potentially be organized in a biological manner. This process could also be implemented in the make up of electronic products.