Cornell University

To develop magnetic-digital-polymers as an abiotic platform for exploring life-like behaviors

  • Amount $1,500,000
  • City Ithaca, NY
  • Investigator Paul McEuen
  • Year 2021
  • Program Research
  • Sub-program Matter-to-Life

A Cornell University team led by Paul McEuen has developed a fully artificial platform with some remarkable capabilities.  The platform's basic building blocks—magnetic digital polymers—are small panels (a few microns) with magnetic data lithographically patterned on their faces and sides. These data specify via magnetic forces how the panels interact with one another.  This ingeniously allows the panels to mimic the chemistry of biological molecules.  In biological molecules, the atoms that make up a molecule determine which other molecules it can chemically bond with and how strong such a bond, once formed, is.  By altering the data pattered on the faces of the digital polymers, McEuen and his team can replicate these features, with some polymers bonding selectively with others, just like biological molecules do.  What’s more, because the physics of magnetism is well-understood, the behavior of McEuen’s magnetic polymers should be relatively simply, at least in theory, to model and predict. This grant funds an effort by McEuen and his research team to attempt to use magnetic digital polymers to mimic two important features of biological life: reproduction and metabolism. To demonstrate "reproduction" McEuen and his team will begin by developing what they call Magnetic DNA, a digital magnetic polymer capable of replicating itself. Reproduction will be demonstrated by programming in appropriate magnetic interactions to create information strands (polymer patterns) that self-replicate under cyclic application of “agitation” via an external magnetic field, acoustic waves, and/or thermal excitation. To demonstrate "metabolism," the team will use a variety of strategies to create a magnetic polymer version of an enzyme, an entity that can modify the replicating unit. This will involve using magnetic and mechanical forces to cut linear polymer chains at specified locations, in analogy to how the CRISPER-Cas9 protein cuts DNA.

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