Department of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford

Researchers in the Fletcher group have designed and created a simple, chemical system which displays some of the emergent properties of lifelike systems. This work could contribute towards the design of new materials and machines with lifelike properties: those which replicate, adapt and evolve.

Living systems are highly complex; even the simplest cells contain thousands of interacting components and pieces of biological machinery, all working in harmony and continuously consuming energy to keep the system ticking over, replicating, and ‘alive’. Without an energy supply, the system cannot continue to function.

The researchers wanted to mimic a living system like this but at a minimal level, using only a few simple, synthetic chemical components. By achieving this, we can make steps forward in our understanding of how lifelike systems operate, and we can create increasingly sophisticated synthetic machines and systems of our own in the lab.

With this goal in mind, the team have designed and created a system of micelles – the same kind of structures as you find in soapy water – which undergo a process of replication by continuously constructing the building blocks which create their membrane-like structure. In order for this process to continue, and for the system to stay ‘alive’, it continuously consumes a chemical fuel. The system therefore displays some of the most fundamental properties of lifelike systems – replication with the continuous consumption of energy – but without the use of any complex biological machinery.

The continued development of a system like this, from the bottom-up, towards more complex systems will allow us to create new materials and machines with interesting properties and functions, and even the beginnings of a minimal living system.

Link to paper: