Physicists have discovered that charged particles of dust can form themselves into life-like structures that appear to be capable of reproducing and passing information along, behaviour reminiscent of life on Earth.
The researchers, (led by V N Tsytovich of the General Physics Institute, Russian Academy of Science, in Moscow, along with boffins from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and the University of Sydney) have developed a computer model to help them understand "the behaviour of complex mixtures of inorganic materials in a plasma".
Although convention dictates that there would be very little organisation in a system of such particles, the researchers demonstrated that under the right conditions, order could emerge.
As the plasma becomes polarised, the model shows microscopic strands of particles twisting into helical, or corkscrew structures.
The simulation suggests that the dusty corkscrews have two stable configurations - a large spiral and a small spiral. Each helix could contain various sequences of these two states, the researchers say, which raises the possibility that they could store information.
The team reports that the structures can divide, form copies (transmit their stored information information), interact with neighbouring spirals, and even induce changes in other spirals. More speculatively, they suggest these changes could evolve as less stable structures break down.
So, are there corkscrew-shaped dust-aliens floating about in interstellar space?
Gregor Morfill of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany is not prepared to go quite that far. He told New Scientist: "It has a lot of the hallmarks for how we define life at present, but we have not simulated life. To us, they're just a special form of plasma crystal."
However, Tsytovich is prepared to be a bit more flexible on his definition of what might constitute life, saying that the spirals "exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify them as candidates for inorganic living matter. They are autonomous, they reproduce, and they evolve".
The next step is to go hunting for a real environment where such structures could have emerged. Morfill suggests that planetary rings would be the best place to start the search.
The research is reported in the 14 August edition of the New Journal of Physics, and New Scientist has a more extensive write up here. ®