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Bomb technology may contain the secret of life

The physics of life and death can be close neighbors. The same principle used to separate uranium to build an atomic bomb in Nazi Germany might be essential for the origin of life and is now widely used to measure the stability of biomolecule binding in medicine and biology.

Physics in Munich has a long tradition; the Golden Age of physics at the very beginning of the 20th century is especially well remembered. The rooms in which Sommerfeld and Laue worked still bear their names. Once they hosted breakthrough experiments on x-ray crystallography and held one of the top places for physics in the 1920s, but things took a sharp turn shortly after towards "German" Physics. A mere hundred meters away, the same institution helped arrest the group "Weiße Rose" which tried to defend humanism and liberal worldviews against all odds.

At that time, Klaus Clusius was Professor at the University of Munich in Nazi Germany. He invented an elegant way to accumulate gas molecules solely by temperature. A heated wire in a long glass tube moved the molecules in the temperature gradient and accumulated them. Clusius, a chemist by training, focused on using the technique to separate molecules that are identical in chemical behavior but different in mass.

Soon after his finding in 1938, the military complex understood that the method could be capable of enriching uranium to the point that an atomic bomb?and surely a nuclear reactor?could possibly be manufactured.

The mechanism should have yielded uranium in an isotopically purified form, a material so dangerous and deadly that the human mind still struggles to comprehend it. One could term the mechanism "the accumulation of death". Fortunately, corrosion problems put a fast end to the project.

Much later? and interestingly, in the same rooms?physicists now use the same principle to accumulate biological molecules, not uranium isotopes, in order to create, from the bottom up, the first living systems.

Professor Braun, a young physics professor, argues that deep, warm ocean vents hosted conditions very similar to those pioneered by Clusius. Temperature gradients, now situated in pores of rock instead of glass tubes, make the accumulation of the small and diluted biomolecules possible. The resulting process is likely to create the first Darwinian process and possibly trigger the evolution of life.

Uranium isotopes are not being enriched this time; instead, they are the best replicating molecules to promote evolution. They show that both the replication and accumulation are ideal conditions to host Darwinian evolution. So the same physical principles that were once aimed at killing people might have been very important to bring about life in the first place.

Recently, two PhD students of the Braun group, Stefan Duhr and Philipp Baaske, have started a company, named NanoTemper, which commercializes the effect of separation by temperature gradients. Their main application is to detect how strong biological molecules bind to each other. One of the applications is to screen for pharmaceuticals or to detect antibodies in blood, aiding in healing processes instead of destructive ones.

With the development of atomic bomb, physicists had to learn that their science was a tool that could be used way beyond basic research. Happily, history sometimes takes unexpected and fortunate turns. The same rooms at the university of Munich where physics principles were once used for life-threatening technologies are now being applied to yield new solutions to understand the origin of life and the treatment of diseases.