Synthesizing Life

Lee Cronin

Gardiner Professor of Chemistry, University of Glasgow

Videography by Nerine & Robert Clemenzi, Edited by Nerine Clemenzi
Copyright © Philosophical Society of Washington.  All rights reserved.

Lee Cronin


What is life? How did life start on planet earth 3.5 billion years ago? Which molecules and chemical systems led to biology? Is biology limited to the carbon-based chemical systems of life as we know it or can other chemical systems support other biologies? Is there a general theory of evolution that extends to all matter? These are fantastically interesting questions fundamental to our understanding of life itself. This lecture will explore answers to these questions - by looking to the future rather than by looking to the past. Invoking the concept of 'adaptive matter' composed of evolvable chemical systems and materials the lecture will address the fundamental question of biology: "What is the minimal chemical system that can undergo Darwinian evolution?" It will do so not only conceptually but empirically. It will discuss how chemists can attempt to create new types of biology, truly synthetic life. In particular, it will describe experiments to create inorganic biology: living systems that do not use proteins, DNA or sugars. The lecture will describe the chemistry, materials, and novel reactor arrays now being used to carry out these experiments. including a network reactor array the speaker constructed in his Glasgow laboratory that, he hopes, will enable his research group to create autonomous chemical entities capable of replication and adaptive behavior.

The Speaker

Lee Cronin is Gardiner Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow. His work focuses on understanding and controlling self-assembly and self-organization in chemical systems. His group is working to develop functional molecular and nano-molecular chemical systems, linking architectural design with function to engineer system-level functions such as coupled catalytic self-assembly and the fabrication of inorganic cells thatallow complex cooperative behaviors. He also works on 3D printing wetfabs, drug development, sensors and fuel cells. Cronin and his group pursue their research through a wide range of international collaborations.

Cronin earned his BSc and PhD in Chemistry at York University, was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at Birmingham University, held appointments as Lecturer, Reader and Professor and was an EPSRC Advanced Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow before assuming the Gardiner Chair of Chemistry. He has published more than 200 papers in professional journals and has given over 150 invited talks all over the world, including the keynote talk at TED Global 2011. Among many honors and awards, Cronin is the recipient of the Hay Lectureship, the Leverhulme Prize, the Morino Foundation Prize, and the Royal Society's Wolfson Award. He is a member of numerous honorary organizations and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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