Natural Computing

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 219–237 | Cite as

How crystals that sense and respond to their environments could evolve

  • Rebecca Schulman
  • Erik WinfreeEmail author


An enduring mystery in biology is how a physical entity simple enough to have arisen spontaneously could have evolved into the complex life seen on Earth today. Cairns-Smith has proposed that life might have originated in clays which stored genomes consisting of an arrangement of crystal monomers that was replicated during growth. While a clay genome is simple enough to have conceivably arisen spontaneously, it is not obvious how it might have produced more complex forms as a result of evolution. Here, we examine this possibility in the tile assembly model, a generalized model of crystal growth that has been used to study the self-assembly of DNA tiles. We describe hypothetical crystals for which evolution of complex crystal sequences is driven by the scarceness of resources required for growth. We show how, under certain circumstances, crystal growth that performs computation can predict which resources are abundant. In such cases, crystals executing programs that make these predictions most accurately will grow fastest. Since crystals can perform universal computation, the complexity of computation that can be used to optimize growth is unbounded. To the extent that lessons derived from the tile assembly model might be applicable to mineral crystals, our results suggest that resource scarcity could conceivably have provided the evolutionary pressures necessary to produce complex clay genomes that sense and respond to changes in their environment.


Evolution Complexity Universality Crystals Self-assembly Tiles Metabolism 



We thank Andrew Turberfield, Paul Rothemund, Robert Barish, Ho-Lin Chen, and Ashish Goel for insightful conversations and suggestions. This work was supported by NASA Grant No. NNG06GA50G.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California Institute of TechnologyPasadenaUSA

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