Armstrong: Protocell systems - smart chemicals
Added on 04 May 2017
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The protocell system that I'm developing in collaboration with the Southern University of Denmark is one where we're looking at these dynamic properties of these oil and water droplet systems and we're introducing them into environments and we're programming them using different sets of chemicals in order to create very specific outcomes. Now, the forms in which these outcomes occur and exactly how they create their outcomes is not under our control, but we can set up the conditions in which these outcomes are most likely. And so we can think of them as being smart chemicals that are able to sense their environment and respond to it in an appropriate way. And by using the language of chemistry, we can actually start to persuade these agents to conduct themselves in a way that we feel is beneficial for that particular environment. They're very environment-driven. If you change the environment conditions, you change the behaviour of the protocell.
And I think this is the first agent, really, that allows us to directly measure impacts of an environment. Because we're able to take away the notions of traditional programming and code that provide instructions for agents working within a particular field. So, all our observations about behaviour of biology within a particular environment really can't do away with the innate programming that we have assumed to be the locus of control of behaviour. And by actually creating up a set of conditions that are living and seeing impacts of the environment upon those, is something now that we can use to directly measure environmental impact. And I think that's very exciting. Because it's one part of the technological equation to do with biology and how biology works. If you think about what Darwin was saying, it's an interaction between something innate within the organism and the environmental conditions. So we've had technologies that can measure things that are happening inside the cell, but not those that can read the environment and the environment alone. And I think these protocells are actually a technology that will be really useful to enable us to do that. And I think that's going to open up a whole new science for us.

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