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The University of Southampton

Research project: Attard: Artificial complex chemistries: experimental systems that span the animate-inanimate divide

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The aim of this research programme is to address the question on whether or not there is a critical degree of complexity in a chemical reaction network, beyond which the architecture and other network properties become indistinguishable from those of networks from animate systems.

At a fundamental reductionist level, living systems could be considered to be highly complex collections of chemical species, organised and linked by a network of chemical transformations. These networks are able to use external sources of energy (chemical, or electromagnetic) to sustain and create copies themselves. The chemical complexity inherent in living systems is not solely due to the number of distinct chemical species (compositional complexity) that comprise them. Complexity also arises because of the structures of the networks of reactions that link these species (network complexity), their dynamics (temporal complexity) and their self-assembly/organisation into nano- and micro-architectures (spatial complexity).

This project addresses fundamental questions on the relationship between animate and inanimate systems at the chemical level. It focuses on a systematic experimental implementation of artificial chemical networks with compositional, spatial and temporal complexity that is comparable with that of biochemical networks. These chemistries will test the hypothesis that the networks of species produced by mixing a sufficient initial number of reactive compounds will evolve in complexity such that they will exhibit behaviours and characteristics that are indistinguishable from those of metabolic networks. It will investigate artificial chemistries that are spatially heterogeneous and have at least ten-fold more species than systems studied to date. We anticipate that our methodology will provide an unprecedented level of coverage of reaction parameter space and the detail of our data sets will enable us to compare artificial chemistries to evolved chemistries and to identify the conditions necessary for the emergence of properties that are characteristic of living systems. In this way we will achieve accessible experimental model systems of biological systems that can provide fundamental insights into system-level interventions to control homeostasis and other network properties.

This research is being carried out in collaboration with Andrew Shaw (University of Exeter) and Jakob Andersen (Earth Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology).

Related research groups

Chemical Biology, Diagnostics and Therapeutics
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