Rachel Armstrong

Living Chemistry & A “Natural History” of Protocells

The installation Living Chemistry shows the formation of precursors, or models of living cells formed by the innate, complex chemistry of molecules existing at the interface between oil and water. Due to chemical interactions these so-called protocells are able to move around, sense their environment, and exhibit complex behaviours observable to viewers. Here, a protocell metabolism has been designed and engineered through the considered selection of the chemicals involved. The three panels on display contain a system where a water-based droplet in an oil phase exhibits life-like properties by virtue of so-called saponification occurring precisely at the oil/water interface. Furthermore, the chemistry is given a rich jewel-like appearance by the addition of the coloured salts, revealing a new kind of animated crystal garden.

Protocells share some of the physical-chemical properties of living organisms; they are “not yet alive” but are considered the missing link between the barren early earth and the first living organisms in evolution. Such protoplasmatic structures, created directly from their constituent lifeless chemicals, were studied already in the 19th century, prominently by Otto Bütschli in his Untersuchungen über Strukturen (1898). But in the context of today’s synthetic biology, protocells are becoming a central interest for other reasons. While attempts to make cells function with a totally synthetic genome have been successful, it still remains a great challenge to actually synthesize the cell itself as the basic unit of life and have it serve, then, as a “chassis” for genetic circuits.

A chemical protocell system is also aestheticized in the short film A “Natural History” of Protocells by Rachel Armstrong and Michael Simon Toon. Unlike in biology, where the life enabling functions are taking place primarily inside the cell, here, the life-like properties of the simple chemical protocell system are observable at the surface of the droplet. Oil molecules react with a strongly alkaline environment, giving rise to the emergence of moving crystalline microstructures. Subtitles suggest an ongoing dialogue between those entities, developing hypothetic emotional narratives that stress the human desire to see even the smallest units of “life” through an anthropomorphic lens.

Rachel Armstrong conducts collaborations between the arts, sciences and architecture. She is Co-Director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology at the University of Greenwich in London. Her research investigates a new approach to building materials called “living architecture” which seeks to apply the properties of living systems to large-scale constructions.

© Synth-ethic: Art and Synthetic Biology Exhibition 2017.

14.05 - 26.06.2011 in the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria. Produced by Biofaction KG

Vienna, Austria