Wilhelm Huck, Ph.D.

Professor, Radboud University

SCOL Project: Influence of Molecular Structure on Dynamics of Complex Reaction Networks

“What is life?” is a question that has occupied mankind for thousands of years. We propose to look at this question in a new way, starting from the realization that a living cell is a bag of molecules. The question then is: How does a bag of molecules become alive? “Life” is not a property of any molecule in particular but arises from the large number of interactions between molecules. More specifically, it emerges from the large number of reactions that are all connected to one another via shared reactants. In this project, we will use small model reaction networks that will tell us more about the precise behavior of such networks. How does functionality emerge in such systems and how does it “die away”? Addressing these questions will shed light on how the earliest form of life might have arisen from a non-living soup of chemical reactions.

Wilhelm Huck was initially trained as a physical organic chemist and received his Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Twente, Netherlands. After postdoctoral training with George Whitesides of Harvard University, he started his academic career in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, where he became director of the Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis in 2004 and professor of macromolecular chemistry in 2007. His research activities covered a broad range of topics, including polymer electronics, polymer thin films and the study of cells on surfaces. He moved from the University of Cambridge to the Radboud University in 2010 to focus entirely on elucidating how the complex networks of chemical reactions in the cell combine to create something we call living. Research in his group is multidisciplinary and incorporates microfluidics, cell-free gene expression systems, cell biology and synthetic chemistry. The group has a strong interest in understanding the dynamics and robustness of out-of-equilibrium systems. This work is now expanding to identify how minimal complex systems can arise from mixtures of coupled reactions and, ultimately, how life arose out of chemical reaction networks of increasing complexity.

Huck is co-founder of two companies active in the field of microdroplets and single-cell analysis (Sphere Fluidics and Cytofind Diagnostics). He received a Bessel Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2009, an ERC Advanced Grant in 2010 and a VICI award of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research in 2011. He was elected to the Royal Dutch Academy of Science and is a 2016 recipient of the Spinoza Prize.

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