Life is more than the sum of its constituent molecules. It is dependent on the way these molecules interact and cooperate with each other, i.e., the way they are organised in self-sustaining chemical reaction networks. Understanding the general chemical organisation underlying living systems, and even more so the ability to have such systems emerge and evolve spontaneously from basic starting conditions in laboratory experiments, would open up a whole new area of technology: living technology. This will have important applications in areas ranging from chemical engineering and smart materials to synthetic biology and medicine. It will also significantly increase our understanding of the origin and early evolution of life, representing a major scientific advance.
We propose to study the spontaneous emergence and possible evolution of self-sustaining chemical reaction networks using a combination of mathematical, computational, and experimental approaches. This will require, but also result in, new detection technologies that will also have useful applications beyond origin of life studies. For example, together with industrial partners we will develop and use microfluidics technology coupled with advanced mass-spectrometry and sequencing techniques. Microfluidics technology is based on microscopic water droplets suspended in oil, and will be used to simulate small compartments, or “protocells”. Mass-spectrometry is used to detect which molecular species are present in a chemical mixture. Currently there is no efficient way of coupling these two techniques to detect molecular compositions within micro-droplets. However, having such technology available will open up important new applications in, for example, personalised medicine or in detecting and treating neurogenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Simultaneously, the scientific potential is also highly significant. In particular, our project aims to gain a deeper understanding of the origin of life and the basic underlying chemical organisation of living systems. Most current work on the origin of life is primarily based on studying the structures and possible synthesis of individual molecules. What is still missing is a “dynamical systems and network view” focused on function (i.e. the ability to collectively replicate, cooperate, and evolve), which is exactly what we propose to provide. This could potentially lead to a much-needed paradigm shift in origin of life research, while also providing the basis for actual living technology.
Our project will bring together an international team of scientific experts (ranging from mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists, chemists, and biologists) and industrial partners to pursue the stated goals. We will also engage actively in public outreach by offering public lectures, publishing popular-science articles, and maintaining a project website to inform the general public about our alternative views of the origin and early evolution of life.