Image of petri dish featuring the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction.

Uncovering life’s operating code

By examining artificial systems with life-like qualities, Meiji University chemist seeks to better understand biological life.

In this petri dish, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction—a nonlinear process that can oscillate between two different chemical states—is taking place.
Photograph courtesy Meiji University

For a long time, dating back to his undergraduate days around 20 years ago, Nobuhiko J. Suematsu has been preoccupied with one question: “What is life, and what is not life?” It’s a difficult question to take on, admits Suematsu, a chemist who has been on the Meiji University faculty since 2010. And the work he is doing—using inanimate materials to reproduce some of the patterns and behaviors observed in biological systems—in some ways makes it even harder to differentiate between the living and nonliving.

Although Suematsu’s research falls under the heading of “artificial life,” he is not trying to make the inanimate animate or create life in a test tube. Instead, he wants to understand the basic mechanisms employed by

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