The discovery of 'life-like' structures formed from substances in space dust hints at the possibility of inorganic life for the first time, scientists have claimed.
Research by an international team revealed today in the New Journal of Physics details how particles of inorganic dust can become organised into helical structures under the right conditions.
These structures can then interact with each other in ways usually associated with organic compounds and life itself.
V N Tsytovich, of the General Physics Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, working with colleagues at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany and the University of Sydney, has studied the behaviour of complex mixtures of inorganic materials in plasma structures.
Plasma is essentially the fourth state of matter beyond solid, liquid and gas, in which electrons are torn from atoms leaving behind a miasma of charged particles.
Until now, physicists had assumed that there could be little organisation in such a cloud of particles.
However, Tsytovich and his colleagues used a computer model of molecular dynamics to demonstrate that particles in a plasma can undergo self-organisation as electronic charges become separated and the plasma becomes polarised.
This effect results in microscopic strands of solid particles that twist into corkscrew, or helical, structures. The helical strands are themselves electronically charged and are attracted to each other.
"These complex self-organised plasma structures exhibit all the necessary properties to qualify as candidates for inorganic living matter," said Tsytovich. "They are autonomous, they reproduce and they evolve."
He added that the plasma conditions needed to form the helical structures are common in outer space. However, plasmas can also form under more down-to-earth conditions such as at the point of a lightning strike.
Some parts of Atacama have not received rainfall for 500 years - but a sudden deluge of water upset the Desert's delicate biological balance
Spitzer Space Telescope could not spot Oumuamua, suggesting that it is actually pretty small
Greenland crater one of the 25 largest impact craters on Earth
This long-sought progenitor star was identified in an image captured by Hubble in 2007