We study and implement life-like and minimal living processes in a variety of materials and systems.
The minimal protocells we seek to implement consist of an autocatalytic coupling between three central components: an informational system, a metabolic system, and a container.
A majority of our activities are focused on the chemical synthesis and assembly of a minimal protocell in the laboratory.
We apply simulation and develop theory to study/understand/design and control the prerequisites for realizing protocell life-cycles.
We develop artificial life-like and living processes coupling ICT and biochemical systems to create a new paradigm for integrated technologies for information processing and material production.
What is life? How did it arise on Earth? Are we alone - or is life widespread in the universe?
We envision that developing artificial living processes can form the basis for powerful new engineering disciplines with multiple applications in the medical, material, information, energy, and environmental sciences.
Von Neumann, the inventor of the modern computer, realized that if life is a physical process, it should be possible to implement life in other media than biochemistry. He was one of the first to propose the possibility of implementing genuine living processes in computers, robots and other media. This perspective, while still controversial, is rapidly gaining momentum in many science and engineering communities and it is the basis for our work. Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (1977), emphasized the importance of utilizing free energy fluxes to generate order in physicochemical systems through self-organization. The metabolic processes in our protocells utilize free energy to maintain local order. Manfred Eigen, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry (1967), pointed out that autocatalysis between functional components could be a mechanism for the emergence of early life. All our protocellular components are autocatalytically coupled.
What is minimal life?
There is not a generally agreed upon definition of life within the scientific community, as there is a grey zone of interesting processes between nonliving and living matter. Our work on assembling minimal physicochemical life is based on implementing three criteria, which most biological life forms satisfy. From a practical point of view, a minimal living physicochemical system needs to: (1) use free energy to convert resources from the environment into building blocks so that it can grow and reproduce, (2) have the growth and division processes at least partly controlled by inheritable information, and (3) allow the inheritable information to change slightly from one generation to the next, thereby permitting variation of the growth and division processes and thus allow selection and hence evolution.
For a comprehensive discussion of protocells and for a snapshot of the broader field of Artificial Life, see e.g. the references below:
Rasmussen S., Bedau M.A., Chen L., Deamer D., Krauker D.C., Packard N.H., Stadler P.F., Protocells: Bridging nonliving and living matter, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2009
Fellermann H, Dorr M, Hanczyc M, Laursen L, Mauer S, Merkle D, Monnard P-A, Stoy K and Rasmussen S, eds., Artificial Life XII, Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference on the Synthesis and Simulation of Living Systems, eds., MIT Press online proceedings, 2010.