Compartmentalization is generally regarded as one of the key prerequisites for life. To better understand the role of compartmentalization, there is a clear need for model systems that can be adapted in a highly controlled fashion, and in which life-like properties can be installed. Polymer-based compartments are robust and chemically versatile, and as such are a useful platform for the development of life-like compartments. In this lecture I will discuss polymer vesicles, which are modified in shape and function to show life-like features such as catalytic activity and transient behavior. A second platform is based on complex coacervates, stabilized by a block copolymer membrane. These artificial cells have an interior that mimics the cell’s cytoplasm; their membrane is furthermore semipermeable, allowing them to incorporate and release biologically active compounds. This enables these artificial cells to communicate with each other and interact with their environment, resulting in adaptive behavior, including motility.
Jan van Hest has been awarded the Spinoza Prize 2020. He works at the cutting edge of (polymer) chemistry and biomedicine. He focuses on the design and synthesis of bio-inspired peptide-based materials and the development of conjugation methods for the preparation of biohybrid systems. The objective of his research is to construct smart compartments with life-like features, which develops along two main lines of research: nanomedicine and artificial cells and organelles. The nanomedicine research line in particular concerns medicine transport systems and synthetic vaccines. Using a combination of techniques from polymer science to protein engineering, well-defined carriers and scaffolds are developed for application in e.g. cancer treatment, immunology and ophthalmology. Van Hest is also active in the field of artificial and hybrid cells where he designs and constructs adaptive nano- and microcompartments that simulate living cells. His artificial nanoreactors can be incorporated as artificial organelles in living cells to complement or affect cellular processes.