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Computational Chemistry

Using blockchain networks to model the origins of life

Computational chemists use distributed network to supersize their calculations

by Laura Howes
January 25, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 3


An illustration depicting multiple nodes joined together into a network of green lines in a black space.
Credit: Shutterstock
People around the world shared their computing power via the Golem Network, allowing chemists to compute billions of prebiotic reactions and molecules.

Blockchain is most commonly known as the technology behind cryptocurrencies. But blockchains are also used to share data, such as supply chain information, securely. Blockchain networks can also act like virtual computers, which means they can run chemical simulations.

A team led by Bartosz Grzybowski of Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and of the Institute for Basic Science, has now used the open-access blockchain platform Golem to run billions of possible prebiotic reactions (Chem 2024, DOI: 10.1016/j.chempr.2023.12.009).

Grzybowski has long been involved in designing software to predict synthetic pathways based on chemical rules. In a 2020 paper, he and his team reported how one of those programs could generate networks of potential prebiotic molecules (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw1955).

Linking up that software, Allchemy, with a distributed network of computers via Golem supercharged the processing power compared with the previous work—and all without access to expensive supercomputers.

Starting from just nine simple starting materials, the network generated over 11 billion reactions. The results included metabolism-like cycles, but only a few of those cycles can be considered self-replicating.

For 50 years, researchers have debated whether small molecules could develop true metabolic cycles without macromolecules. This paper doesn’t resolve that question, but Grzybowski says that “it is in principle possible to envisage how metabolism could have emerged from small molecules.”

Though Grzybowski acknowledges that using blockchain to run chemical simulations might seem like an odd choice, he says he favors using the technology to harness computing power for this rather than for energy-hungry cryptocurrency mining.



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