The University of Chicago

To build, from non-living chemicals, a minimal living system capable of reproduction and Darwinian evolution

  • Amount $2,500,000
  • City Chicago, IL
  • Investigator Jack Szostak
  • Year 2022
  • Program Research
  • Sub-program Matter-to-Life

This grant funds an ambitious plan by an international collaboration of six laboratories to achieve a milestone that science, and humanity more generally, has imagined for quite some time: building some version of life from scratch. That claim must be qualified by cautions that the effort may not succeed and by clarification that the proposed entity is probably better viewed as a minimal form of life rather than as a (much more complex) natural cell. To be clear about the version of life herein proposed, the goal of this project is to design and build a protocell from nonliving chemicals that is capable of indefinite cycles of genetic replication, growth, and division, and which—over generations—exhibits environmentally driven Darwinian evolution.The project team is led by Jack Szostak, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago and includes researchers Irene Chen (UC Santa Barbara. U.S.), Sheref Mansy (University of Alberta, Canada), Arvind Murugan (University of Chicago, U.S.), John Sutherland (Medical Research Council, United Kingdom), and Anna Wang (University of New South Wales, Australia).Project activities will consist of laboratory experiments guided by theory and computation, organized along three primary research thrusts.First, the team will conduct research to achieve indefinite cycles of RNA replication by achieving high-fidelity copying of the entire RNA-based genome. The two major components of this first thrust are optimizing the chemistry for copying a given gene sequence from a template and ensuring that the entire genome is copied. The second research thrust focuses on achieving indefinite cycles of cell growth and division. Here the primary challenge is understanding and controlling membrane growth and division, and the team will experiment with several different approaches to using fatty-acid vesicles as the primary protocell container. In the third research thrust, the research team will address issues associated with making the genetic and compartmentalization systems mutually compatible. After these major goals are achieved, the team will then observe this primitive living system over several generations as it increases in complexity, adapts and evolves, and as its genome grows to encode more information about the world.

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