AGENCY FOR TOXIC SUBSTANCES AND DISEASE REGISTRY

Self-replication

Self-replication is any behavior of a dynamical system that yields construction of an identical copy of itself. Biological cells, given suitable environments, reproduce by cell division. During cell division, DNA is replicated and can be transmitted to offspring during reproduction. Biological viruses can replicate, but only by commandeering the reproductive machinery of cells through a process of infection. Harmful prion proteins can replicate by converting normal proteins into rogue forms. Computer viruses reproduce using the hardware and software already present on computers. Self-replication in robotics has been an area of research and a subject of interest in science fiction. Any self-replicating mechanism which does not make a perfect copy (mutation) will experience genetic variation and will create variants of itself. These variants will be subject to natural selection, since some will be better at surviving in their current environment than others and will out-breed them.

One form of natural self-replication that isn't based on DNA or RNA occurs in clay crystals. Clay consists of a large number of small crystals, and clay is an environment that promotes crystal growth. Crystals consist of a regular lattice of atoms and are able to grow if e.g. placed in a water solution containing the crystal components; automatically arranging atoms at the crystal boundary into the crystalline form. Crystals may have irregularities where the regular atomic structure is broken, and when crystals grow, these irregularities may propagate, creating a form of self-replication of crystal irregularities. Because these irregularities may affect the probability of a crystal breaking apart to form new crystals, crystals with such irregularities could even be considered to undergo evolutionary development.

A fully novel artificial replicator is a reasonable near-term goal. A NASA study recently placed the complexity of a clanking replicator at approximately that of Intel's Pentium 4 CPU. That is, the technology is achievable with a relatively small engineering group in a reasonable commercial time-scale at a reasonable cost.

A variation of self replication is of practical relevance in compiler construction, where a similar bootstrapping problem occurs as in natural self replication. A compiler (phenotype) can be applied on the compiler's own source code (genotype) producing the compiler itself. During compiler development, a modified (mutated) source is used to create the next generation of the compiler. This process differs from natural self-replication in that the process is directed by an engineer, not by the subject itself.

The goal of self-replication in space systems is to exploit large amounts of matter with a low launch mass. For example, an autotrophic self-replicating machine could cover a moon or planet with solar cells, and beam the power to the Earth using microwaves. Once in place, the same machinery that built itself could also produce raw materials or manufactured objects, including transportation systems to ship the products. Another model of self-replicating machine would copy itself through the galaxy and universe, sending information back.

Much of the design study was concerned with a simple, flexible chemical system for processing lunar regolith, and the differences between the ratio of elements needed by the replicator, and the ratios available in regolith. The limiting element was Chlorine, an essential element to process regolith for Aluminium. Chlorine is very rare in lunar regolith, and a substantially faster rate of reproduction could be assured by importing modest amounts.

In 2011, New York University scientists have developed artificial structures that can self-replicate, a process that has the potential to yield new types of materials. They have demonstrated that it is possible to replicate not just molecules like cellular DNA or RNA, but discrete structures that could in principle assume many different shapes, have many different functional features, and be associated with many different types of chemical species.