Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
. 24/7 Space News .

Cooking Up Creation In A Computer
by Leslie Mullen
for Astrobiology Magazine
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Jul 06, 2009

Simulated organisms before they are digitally scanned, chemically fabricated, and sent on a rocket journey to an asteroid. From EvoGrid: The Asteroid Eaters. Image Credit: DigitalSpace

The power of computer processing could one day solve the riddle of life's origin. Scientists think life appeared about 4 billion years ago, and ancient rocks on Earth can give us some idea of what the environment was like. Life may have originated in an ocean rich in chemicals.

This primordial soup may have been simmering, or it may have been zapped by lightning. Certainly energy of some sort must have helped drive a simple chemical system into a more complex state. But the clues are few, and the picture remains hazy.

Enter the Evogrid, a computer creation concept that would be a digital version of the primordial soup. The EvoGrid was dreamed up by a group of international advisors and Bruce Damer, the founder of a research company that creates 3-D spacecraft and mission simulations for NASA and the space community.

Damer and his chief architect, Peter Newman, are developing the EvoGrid concept by adapting GROMACS, a powerful open source molecular dynamics simulator originally developed at The University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Each virtual particle within the Evogrid's simulated liquid soup will have particular physical properties, and will behave accordingly.

"We will be constructing a model of a 'toy universe', which has approximate properties of the early oceans on Earth," says Damer.

With a laundry list of basic physical properties entered into the starting parameters, the simulation would allow artificial nature to take its course. Interactions and connections between particles should occur, and ever higher levels of complexity may arise from the most basic elements.

Much like SETI@home's screen saver, which enables computers at home to search for signals of extraterrestrial life within volumes of astrophysical data, the Evogrid is conceived to have volunteer computers become part of an interconnected grid for maximum processing capacity. Damer hopes to eventually get a million computers hooked into the grid.

These computers would receive data from the EvoGrid simulation engine. The simulation would essentially consist of a vast virtual ocean of interacting numbers that would model the time before complex life forms emerged. To know whether self-organization is occurring, the program would look for persistent patterns within the data.

"If a vesicle, or a ball of particles has formed, you would be able to detect that," says Damer. "If a string of particles began to replicate, that would be easy to track, or if particles began to combine in a long chain of reactions, that would be important but tougher to recognize."

It is thought that some combination of a lipid container (vesicle), strings of molecules (genomes) and metabolic reactions led to the development of life. The Evogrid won't produce visual images of the combined effort of all the linked computers, because it would slow the processing down too much. However, home users would see a visualization of what is being observed in their own small patch of the EvoGrid.

Damer notes that present-day computer simulations run much more slowly than chemical reactions, but he anticipates that in the next 20 to 40 years, with the help of millions of microprocessors, an entire cell could be simulated in cyberspace.

"Nils Baricelli wrote an artificial life program for the first modern computer in 1953, and to some extent we haven't gone much further than his original experiment," says Damer. "We shall see how far the EvoGrid can go, using millions of the descendents of the original Von Neumann machine."

Damer envisions two possible versions of Evogrid: a hands-off "Origins" version, and an experimental "Intelligent Designer" edition that would allow people to tinker with the simulation. Damer says the ID edition of Evogrid could include a "miracle module" that would allow users to play God in their attempts to create proto-life. The Origins edition would be the focus of the science, however, with strict controls to shield the experiment from any guiding human influence.

Damer muses that "in its ultimate incarnation, a much more powerful EvoGrid would allow us to pose the question: where in this universe or others might life exist and at what level of complexity?" Damer thinks an EvoGrid tuned for SETI and astrobiology could be used to simulate extraterrestrial environments and address the question of whether life could have emerged there.

Even if the EvoGrid managed to generate some virtual but convincing life forms, either through random or directed means, "the numbers will always be numbers," says Damer. "As Baricelli wrote over fifty years ago, they will never be living organisms."

But Damer dreams big, and he thinks someday the creatures generated by the Evogrid could be re-created chemically. A virtual scanner could be devised to break down the computer-based creature into its digital body parts, and then that information could be used to try to build the same creature out of real chemistry in the lab. Of course, this step of the experiment would rely on technology that does not currently exist.

"Life is more than the sum of its parts, and you can't just throw the necessary chemicals together and expect a life form to emerge," Damer says. However, researchers are hard at work trying to recreate all the biochemical steps necessary to synthesize a kind of proto-life in the lab, so perhaps this possibility is not too far over the horizon.

Looking even farther into the future, Damer thinks that far more advanced EvoGrids, paired with "ChemoGrids", could be used to create a new genesis of cyber-physical life forms to colonize asteroids, or to terraform Mars into a more habitable planet for humans. Freeman Dyson, who is now an advisor for the EvoGrid project, popularized this concept, and Damer notes that "evolution within an adaptively-tuned living system is the only mechanism powerful enough to make a place outside of the Earth habitable for us."

He expects that other intelligent civilizations in the universe probably harness the power of evolution to solve difficult problems such as creating habitable zones to colonize.

"This is a common theme in science fiction, but science fiction tells us what could be possible someday," he adds. "The way for us to get there is to start with simulation and ride the wave of ever greater computing power."


Related Links
Life Beyond Earth
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science

Comment on this article via your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

Searching For Life On Icy Worlds
Davos, Switzerland (SPX) Jun 29, 2009
Ice is a common feature of many of the worlds in the solar system with the potential to support life. Working out how to detect the signature of life - past or present - in ice will be a key part of solar system exploration. Project SLIce - Signatures of Life in Ice - is designed to find out both what signs of life might survive in ice, and how to detect it in a scientifically robust way. ... read more

Forty years ago man first walked on the moon

LRO Sends First Lunar Images To Earth

First Conclusive Signature For Lunar Uranium

LRO Enters Orbit Around the Moon

NASA Phoenix Results Point To Martian Climate Cycles

Landforms Indicate Recent Warm Weather On Mars

Opportunity Moves To Outcrop For Rest

Spirit Continues To Study Troy

Green Room helping Japanese expedition

US manned space flight in doubt 40 years after moon walk

Boeing Team To Develop Revolutionary Spacecraft Power System

Rocket Launch Helps Prepare MSU Faculty For Training Students

China to launch Mars space probe

China To Launch First Mars Probe In Second Half Of 2009

China Launches Yaogan VI Remote-Sensing Satellite

China Able To Send Man To Moon Around 2020

ISS Appearing Nationwide Over July 4 Weekend

Cargo Ship To Undock From ISS, Serve As Technical Platform

Space Station Room With A View

Progress To Undock From ISS June 30

Russia launches US radio satellite: report

Largest-Ever Telecommunications Satellite Launched

ILS Proton Launches SIRIUS FM-5 Satellite

Integration Of Ariane 5 Completed

STScI Joins The Search For Other Earths In Space

Five 'Holy Grails' Of Distant Solar Systems

Planet-Forming Disk Orbiting Twin Suns Revealed

Planet-Hunting Method Succeeds At Last

Satellite Successfully Performs Post-Launch Maneuvers

LockMart Awarded Concept Development Contract For USAF Space Fence

Bridges built from recycled plastic

Vietnam To Operate Its First Satellite Image Receiving Station

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement