The 2,414th Meeting of the Society

October 18, 2019 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Like Life

Bottom-Up Synthetic Biology

Neal Devaraj

Professor, Dept. of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Bioengineering
University of California - San Diego

About the Lecture

The last half century has seen incredible advances in biology that have yielded remarkable insights into how living organisms operate across multiple scales – from the molecular, to the cellular, to the population levels. Yet, we still do not understand what life is, how it originated, or how to create it in the absence of preexisting life.

This lecture will discuss recent efforts to approach these problems through the synthesis of artificial cells, which are materials that mimic the form or function of living cells. It will describe two general approaches taken by my lab and others. Top-down approaches aim to simplify extant organisms and biochemical processes to distill the minimal requirements for cellular life as we know it.

Perhaps more interesting (and challenging) are bottom-up approaches, that aim to create life-like materials from completely abiotic starting materials. The latter approach has the opportunity to create systems that, while exhibiting features that are hallmarks of living organisms, such as reproduction, evolution, and metabolism, bear little resemblance to life on Earth. Thus, by pursuing this research, we hope to gain a better understanding of what makes a material “alive.”

About the Speaker

Neal K. Devaraj is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, and a Professor of Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego. Before joining the UCSD faculty, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Medical School.

A major research thrust of his lab involves understanding how non-living matter, such as simple organic molecules, can assemble to form life. Along these lines, he has developed approaches for the in-situ synthesis of synthetic cell membranes by using selective reactions to “stitch” together lipid fragments. His lab’s work has enabled the first demonstration of perpetually self-reproducing lipid vesicles and artificial membranes that can dynamically remodel their chemical structure. Recently, his lab has demonstrated that in situ synthesis can assemble lipid species within living cells, enabling studies that decipher how lipid structure affects cellular function.

Neal speaks to technical audiences frequently, has given over 80 invited lectures, and he is an author on more than 60 peer reviewed publications.

Among numerous honors recognizing his work, Neal is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Natural Sciences, is a Blavatnik National Laureate in Chemistry, received the American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry and the National Fresenius Award, and he was named Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar for his outstanding teaching.

Neal earned a BS in Biology and Chemistry at MIT, a PhD in Chemistry at Stanford University, and he did postdoctoral work as a fellow at Harvard Medical School.