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Proteins are ‘bred’ to bond silicon and carbon

Silicon-based life
An artist’s conception shows a fanciful view of organosilicon-based life. (Lei Chen and Yan Liang / BeautyOfScience.com for Caltech)

Using directed evolution, researchers say they’ve “bred” protein molecules from an unusual type of bacteria to create chemical bonds between silicon atoms and carbon atoms efficiently.

Chemists have been able to do that in the lab, but it’s not been done biologically before.

“No living organism is known to put silicon-carbon bonds together, even though silicon is so abundant, all around us, in rocks and all over the beach,” Caltech researcher Jennifer Kan, the lead author of a report on the experiment published in the journal Science, said in a news release.

Silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust (after oxygen), and the idea of living organisms based on silicon rather than carbon has been a science-fiction standard for decades. The best-known example is the Horta, the rock-eating creature on the planet Janus VI in the original “Star Trek” TV series.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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