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Researcher aims to mimic the chemistry of life

Junjun Tan has received one of the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s NERD (New Exploratory Research and Discovery) grants to explore how nature creates complex life from simple chemistry.

The quest to create synthetic life has begun. However, a mixture of various chemicals in a flask is far removed from anything that can be considered alive.

Junjun Tan, Postdoctoral Fellow from the Department of Chemistry and Bioscience at Aalborg University, has just received a major grant from the Foundation’s NERD programme to take the first steps on the long journey from chemistry to life.

The NERD programme aims to support research projects based on wild and ambitious ideas, and Junjun Tan’s research is just that. In her research, she will determine how to create life in the laboratory by using simple molecules.

“The research project is driven by curiosity about the question: How can inanimate molecules be used to synthesise life? Life is very complex, and this grant provides me the time and money to explore this fundamental question about the chemical principles behind life. Life is also the most intelligent system on Earth, and if we can understand how it is created chemically, we might also understand how we can make intelligent materials with some of the same properties as life,” says Junjun Tan

Metabolism is one key to making chemistry alive
Making something alive requires not just a lot of chemistry in the form of molecules but also metabolic reactions that interact with the molecules.

The metabolism of organisms therefore has an essential role in creating life from otherwise lifeless molecules. The understanding of complex chemical systems composed of a set of interacting molecules is called systems chemistry, a relatively new field – and a field that Junjun Tan wants to promote.

“Creating synthetic life requires knowing how to create and explore complex chemical systems in which molecules can form reactions and aggregate to create life. Systems chemistry enables the possibility of creating these systems,” she explains.

Useful in many fields
The grant for Junjun Tan is almost DKK 14 million over 7 years, and during that time, Junjun Tan will develop and use the tools of systems chemistry to attempt to create synthetic metabolism that can control and regulate the organisation of molecules to form a complex chemical system – similar to the metabolism of living organisms.

The goal is to recreate the underlying mechanisms, properties and dynamic behaviours that characterise life within the framework of systems chemistry. The research also seeks to understand how systems chemistry can be applied globally.

“The grant enables me to employ a PhD and two postdoctoral fellows and to establish collaborations with some of the best international researchers in this field. Together we will explore what is required to create synthetic life. If we can do this, this will lead to applications in life science, health research and biotechnology, and it will show what life is and what is required to create it,” says Junjun Tan.

Junjun Tan’s grant is one of a total of 10 NERD grants that the Foundation has just awarded totalling just over DKK 126 million. Read more about the other grant recipients here.

About the NERD Programme

NERD aims to provide support for research projects in the natural sciences based on wild and unorthodox ideas that can provide new knowledge in technology or the natural sciences.

In NERD, researchers can apply to the Foundation for up to DKK 14 million over 7 years. The long-term support will enable researchers to explore new fields and pursue and realise ambitious and wild ideas.

Researchers at any career stage after obtaining the PhD degree are eligible to apply, although the applicant cannot have a grant portfolio as principal investigator exceeding an annual total of DKK 4.0 million.

Further information

Marie-Louise Jersin, Senior Communications Partner, +45 3049 4957, maj@novo.dk