WETBOTS: - Protocell Generation Workshop Report
Have you ever thought about the gap between matter and life?
The human body is made up of an accumulation of various matter, such as water, fat, and protein. However, if we gather all of the matter that we are made of, it would form a mass, but not "life." Rather than existing merely as matter, we perform complex functions such as moving, singing, and growing larger by eating other masses. It is miraculous if you really think about it...
The "WetBots - Protocell and Wet Automata Generation Workshop" held on March 20th was an opportunity to, along with cutting-edge biotechnology, take on the great biological and philosophical question, "when does matter become life?" We explored the world of creating systems with biological characteristics through the experience of making "protocells" that move as if alive.
Juan M. Castro is an artist from Bogota, Colombia who is living in Tokyo. With a Ph.D. in media art from Tama Art University, he presents work and holds workshops around the world. Having studied biotechnology to create his art, he is a rare artist who works directly with bio-media. His previous work includes visual art that reflects an interaction between the viewer and cyanobacteria, said to be the original life that supplied the earth with oxygen, and bio-microsculptures created by synthesizing chemicals that make up cell membranes. This time, he held a workshop for the protocell creation process, which the general public does not usually get the chance to experience.
Pre-modern biology was primarily a method of examining and classifying the organisms being studied, but cutting edge scientific research has enabled a creative approach called a "constitutive approach" in the field of living organic chemistry to "create" and understand things that function like organisms!
In order to understand the basic properties of life held in cells and cell aggregates as material science, is is necessary to do "create and understand" research (constructive approach) of organic molecular aggregates with "lifelikeness" to complement the "measure and understand" research (reductive approach) of conventional molecular cell biology. Source: Tokyo University Komaba Toyota Lab HP
You can understand how a car works after setting up a plastic model. This constructive approach takes an unusually high amount of time and labor, since it must be created from car parts such as "tires" or "engine." It is an investigation method that seeks through repeated trial and error to actually recreate how life's autonomous systems occur.
The characteristic functions of "cells," the smallest unit of life, at this stage
・Autonomously create the membrane structure
We attempt to reproduce these functions to be closer to real cells.
Primitive living system "protocell"
"Protocells," with which Mr. Castro has been working in the Tokyo University Toyota Lab for many years, are primitive "living systems" said to have existed before organisms were living on earth. He attempts to create from the beginning organic molecular aggregates that behave like cells. Last year in May, 2017, Mr. Castro's alma mater Tama Art University School of Information Design held Art + Wet Artificial Life: the first international workshop in Japan, featuring leading figure in protocells Professor Steen Rasmussen. There are protocell models based on vesicles (lipid membrane), but this workshop used a method of protecell creation based on oil droplets.
This workshop included a thorough lecture of basic methods for handling wet materials, such as how to measure materials, how to use pipettes, and how to process chemicals. Pipettes were used to carefully place one drop each of two solutions into an aqueous solution mixed with surfactant. Then, each one became a sphere resembling a salmon roe formed from the oil membrane and started to move on its own.
When you see a small sphere moving freely, it seems mysteriously alive and appears to have a will.
Mr. Castro stated that "the color itself has no meaning, but people like colors and end up projecting some meaning onto the object. I wanted people to experience how we often unconsciously feel that something is "alive" just through movement and color." Indeed, even if you know in your mind that the thing moving before you is just matter, it can resemble goldfish or a tadpole, or appear to be communicating. At an advanced stage, it can get closer bit by bit to the behavior of a real cell through 3D movements such as rising and falling in water, controlling the speed, or successfully dividing.
In the second half, there was a discussion about what kinds of new things will be born and how our senses and conceptions will change if we can create a "living" structure. It is called differentiation when cells gather together and become "eyes" or "hair," but we are still far off from being able to create that artificially. These functions exist inherently in our cells, but we are beginning to understand how complex and mysterious cell structure and functions are.
One of the participants, an aspiring architecture student, said "I was interested to think that in the future, living materials will be used in manufacturing. I can picture it even more realistically after actually experiencing these materials in this workshop."
What sorts of spaces and products would be created if rooms and walls could autonomously self-organize in this way? If we could create something artificial that resembles life, could we call it alive? If we lived in a world where these things are routinely created, how will our values change?
With this opportunity, we would like to continue the Bio Club soft matter workshops. Please look forward to the next one.
Event details: Date: March 20th, 2018. Location: FabCafe MTRL "WETBOTS - Protocell and Wet Automata Generation Workshop"