Extant living systems are the most complex manifestation of chemical processes that we know on Earth: they express a set of properties and behaviors which are based on the subset of carbon chemistry we call Biochemistry. Why and how this might have happened on Earth, or elsewhere in the Universe, is at the core of research in Astrobiology and Origin of Life on Earth. What is found in these contexts will be useful for our understanding of how natural life appeared here and will illuminate the principles at work behind this major (for us!) event in the history of the Universe. This will also enhance our ability to do bioengineering and find applications in the efforts to generate "synthetic" living systems.
A major part of the work being carried out in many labs in the field of Synthetic Biology deals with the construction of living systems using rational design and trying to imitate extant life. This imitation includes Life's detailed, delicate and (apparently) extraordinarily fine-tuned workings. Conceptually it requires the making and lab assembly of the required parts from those already found in extant life or by synthesizing them.
Our group has a different take on synthetic life and tries to bring to the table the power and methodologies of a standard "top-down" approach to design. We are engaged in describing living systems as made up of cooperative chemical subsystems that when in interaction, and within a suitable environment, give rise to specific self-organized patterns. These chemically induced patterns are the ones that, collectively, confer living systems their functional properties.
By a "top-down" approach we mean, as in computer science or cosmology and astrophysics, a strategy to building a system from the outside-in and the application of the same approach to each of its basic subsystems.
As in traditional engineering approaches, with this comes the ability to see more easily flaws in the overall structure. But, in principle, it also has the monumental disadvantage that one needs to have a clear idea of what the "outside" (from which to build-in) is. In our group we are concentrating on some selected reaction-diffusion systems and their potential use in the subsystems.
The basic properties that we are currently investigating are: self-replication, metabolic activity, information handling and the simplest evolutionary features.
We are engaged in phenomenological, theoretical, first principles modeling and experimental work directed towards designing an ex-novo chemical system capable of concomitantly displaying all the above properties. We do take inspiration from the functions of living systems, but do not necessarily use the designs or the chemistry that, naturally, and through billions of years of evolution, gave rise to Life and the extraordinary biodiversity which we observe today. Instead we are investigating their realization in chemical subsystems and assembling them into what we call BIChOSS, which stands for Biologically Inspired Chemically Operated Synthetic Systems.
Our group belongs to the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the team is part of Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative. Our laboratories and offices are located in Harvard's Rowland Institute, an ideal facility for the transdisciplinary work we do.