Among our current projects, we aim to develop theories and experiments concerning the emergence of multicellularity, collective intelligence and organogenesis. Within the context of multicellular systems, we are studying different pathways leading to synthetic multicellular aggregates exhibiting fitness advantage under given environmental conditions. This is done by combining both genetic engineering and experimental evolution.
We also study possible ways of generating synthetic swarm intelligence by modifying the interactions among single-cell organisms (bacteria or eukaryotic cells) in order to create higher-order decision making consortia. These consortia can exhibit different levels of complexity and are capable of solving simple problems such as detecting the richest nutrient source among given repertoire, detecting majorities or exhibiting caste-like features similar to those in ant colonies.
A third project involves an exploration of the morphospace of synthetic organs and organoids: we aim to understand the potential for designing multicellular, functional structures similar or dissimilar to the types of organs that we know. In order to achieve this goal, we use genetic engineering as well as physical models of cell adhesion and movement to study the potential classes of organisation and their limits.
Two other projects of our Lab are strongly related to these developments, namely the study of Major synthetic transitions and our project of bioengineering approaches to ecosystem engineering: Earth Terraformation.
Models of Protocells
Cellularization allowed the emergence of separated compartments (the protocells) able to evolve and maintain a well-defined integrity of all the components. Our Lab has been working at different levels, particularly from the theoretical perspective, modeling protocell dynamics and their possible evolution. As a result of these efforts, we have been able to propose several scenarios for protocell replication and edited a special issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Towards the Artificial cell.
These cells will be much smaller and simpler than modern cells and eventually will allow to create the foundations for information processing in living nano-materials. They can be thought as nano-robots, performing at the molecular scale. As such, these artificial cells will embody extremely simple versions of biochemical networks, weighting many orders of magnitude lessthan the smallest modern cells. Given the small numbers of copies intrinsic to the nanoscale involved, it is important tounderstand the limits imposed by small copy numbers to reliable replication, stability and computation. One of our goals is to define th minimal (theoretical) conditions for such artificial cell to grow and replicate.
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European Center for Living Technology
Our Lab is the UPF member of the ECLT, where research, outreach and training programs are designed to equip a new generation of scientists and engineers to take advantage of programmable artificial cell evolution. We closely collaborated within ECLT during the development of the European Project PACE, which was aimed to push the boundaries of our knowledge of the origins of cellular life and synthetic protocells. The new European Center for Living Technology is to be established in Venice, supported by the European Union, the city of Venice, and the University of Venice Ca Foscari.
The Center will also proactively foster informed public discussion of the novel social, safety and ethical issues raised by living technology.
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