Exploring the Origin of Life at Makerversity’s Bio Lab

By Makerversity

Biofutures Lab is a studio space at Somerset House where we built Bento Lab by day and explore biosciences, making and culture by night.
Written by Philipp Boeing, Bentobio.

Where does chemistry end and biology start? On a february Tuesday in our vault, under Waterloo Bridge, visitors explored this question as they probed the boundary of non-life and proto-life. We saw lye droplets in olive oil form cells with a primitive “metabolism”, colour droplets move as though they were alive, and metal crystals grow into garden-like structures, as though they held a “life-force”.

Central to the workshop’s question was exploring the chemical mechanisms of life, as described in seminar texts such as Stephane Leduc’s “La Biologie Synthetique” (English: The Mechanisms of Life) published in 1913, from which the modern day genetic engineering discipline Synthetic Biology takes its name. So whilst the actual workshop experiments were mostly ancient, their context was very contemporary and indeed in biotechnology research labs there has been a renewed interest in upgrading these classic experiments to build fully working artificial “biological” cells.

The workshop, was facilitated by Akshat Rathi, a science journalist at Quartz with a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford. It is part of our ongoing exploration at Biofutures Lab to create cultural formats around bioscientific hands-on activities.


#1 Proto Cell Droplets

Proto cells are likely one of the steps towards the emergence of life, helping to solve the problem of “compartmentalisation” – what’s inside of the cell organism, and what’s outside. Martin Hanczyk describes proto cells as “a simple artificial prototype of a living cell with one or more properties of life”.

In the workshop, we observed droplets of lye in olive oil which Otto Bütschli originally described in 1898 as “artificial amoeba.”


The reaction between the lye and olive oil is saponification – the making of soap. Traditionally, the lye was won by channeling water through different ashes. The bio-media art project “Living Ashes” is using different ashes as the basis of proto cell saponification, giving new proto-life to previously living matter.


#2 Chemical Gardening

For most of human history, the boundary between life and non-life was not determined by genetics but rather by an intangible “life-force”. But there are situations when plain chemistry can look incredibly life-like. Chemical Gardens are a prime example.

In this experiment, metal salt crystals are added to a ‘water glass’ solution, sodium silicate dissolved in water. Depending on the metal salt, these crystals can grow within minutes to hours into organic forms – all without any life-force at all.


#3 Dancing Droplets

We ended the workshop attempting to recreate these seemingly simple experiments.

However, recreating this effect proved to be much more difficult than it seemed. It turned out that none of the food dyes in the UK contained any propylene glycol, the magic ingredient for the life-like movement exhibited by the droplets. Although we were able to observe some movement with pure propylene glycol / water solutions, the movement was very restricted. This had likely to do with the glass we used as a surface. To be continued!

Check out Bentobio‘s last blog piece.

If you’re interested in becoming a member like Bentobio or so many other makers, get in touch. We have memberships available in both London and Amsterdam.

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Posted By Makerversity