Living systems operate at a thermodynamic state that is out of equilibrium. This endows living organisms with the fascinating ability to autonomously grow, adapt, learn, replicate, signal, respond and heal. This dynamic, dissipative state is very different from the thermodynamic equilibrium regime relevant to most processes in today’s materials chemistry. Within this research effort we take up the challenge to create and study functional systems that operate in the thermodynamic regime of life. In this program, chemists, physicists and biologists join forces to develop new out-of-equilibrium systems and materials that have life-like, adaptive properties. With this consortium we aim to make a significant step forwards in tackling one of the major outstanding challenges in the field of synthetic biology and materials chemistry.


The thermodynamics of living systems is very different from that of most man-made products. Life can be regarded as a state of matter that is controlled by competing processes of formation and degradation. Both of these processes are required for life to evolve in a Darwinian sense. Within a (multicellular) organism, cells communicate and therefore are degraded and formed continuously on a timescale that is much shorter than the lifetime of the organism. In addition, within a cell, most biomolecules are constantly synthesized and degraded on a timescale that is much shorter than the lifetime of the cell. Maintaining this dynamic state and sustaining the high degree of organization within living systems is only possible with a continuous input of energy.

This dynamic, dissipative state is very different from the thermodynamic regime relevant to most processes in (materials) chemistry. Traditionally, chemical products and materials are stable, residing in a thermodynamic minimum or in a kinetically trapped state in which a high energy barrier prevents the system from attaining the thermodynamically most stable state. Once formed, such systems are rigid and not readily changeable. For many applications such rigidity is beneficial (for example, where the material only plays a structural role). However, if dynamic functional properties are desired (such as the ability to move, adapt, learn, replicate, respond and heal), rigidity is undesirable. New functional materials with life-like properties are much more likely to be obtained while operating far from equilibrium, in the thermodynamic regime of life, rather than under thermodynamic control.

Developing synthetic systems that can be maintained out of equilibrium represents a significant departure from the traditional focus in chemistry, which has been primarily aimed at making stable molecules and materials. Accessing out-of-equilibrium systems requires the incorporation of controlled degradation and/or disassembly pathways that have to occur in addition to the more traditional synthesis and/or assembly pathways. Furthermore, coupling of the systems to an energy source (chemical or otherwise) is needed for the various counteracting processes to occur concurrently and to reach a dissipative out-of-equilibrium assembly. Implementing such systems represents a huge challenge that is only recently starting to be addressed.


This program brings together expertise from chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biophysics and materials science, combining experiment and theory to develop new out-of-equilibrium systems that have life-like, adaptive properties, making use of the rich collection of both biological and chemical building blocks. More specifically, we will zoom in on three fundamental principles of life that naturally occur out of equilibrium: self-assembly, self-sustainability and self-replication and aim to capture these aspects in designed partially- or fully-synthetic systems.