Researchers at the University’s Fraden Laboratory have made a breakthrough discovery in their efforts to create an entity that follows the rules of living matter while being made out of only artificial materials — a major step toward accomplishing a scientific goal set more than a decade ago. 

Prof. Seth Fraden PhD ’87 (PHYS) explained in an interview with the Justice that his lab’s discovery is the result of research originally started in 2006. That year, in the middle of the Iraq War, Dr. Irving Epstein (CHEM), the Henry F. Fischbach Professor of Chemistry and former University dean of arts and sciences and provost, received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant. In a separate interview with the Justice, Dr. Epstein confirmed this timeline. 

DARPA was created in February 1958 in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. According to DARPA’s website, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson highlighted “the profound shock of realizing that it might be possible for another nation to achieve technological superiority over this great country of ours” sparked by the launching of Sputnik. 

Fraden explained in the same interview that  since 1958, the government has spent billions of dollars per year, created impossible assignments and “ask[ed] for a group of military, academics and companies to address this task.”  

Why assign impossible tasks, one might wonder? Fraden explained that “if ever a real advance by another power — like Sputnik — comes, then you have these networks of scientists, military and industr[ies] who are ready. They spend $2-3 billion to create these teams and then give enticing challenges to keep the scientists involved and give them freedom to do whatever they want.” 

The task assigned to Epstein’s team asked for “a communication device between a soldier in the battlefield and a drone overhead that would preferably look like a discarded cellophane wrapper from a cigarette carton.” This device would not rely on electronics; instead, infrared signals would relay short messages to an unmanned vehicle hovering overhead. 

In an interview with the Justice, Dr. Epstein explained that the project exploited the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, a particular type of reaction discovered by Soviet chemist Boris Pavlovich Belousov in the 1950s and developed further by Anatol Zhabotinsky. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Dr. Zhabotinsky relocated to the United States, where he continued to work on the BZ reaction as an adjunct professor of chemistry at Brandeis until his death in 2008. During this time, Zhabotinsky collaborated with Epstein, who became a leading expert on the BZ reaction.

Fraden explained that scientists could  “conceivably encapsulate this reaction into multiple reactors that communicate with one another.” This realization was a step toward eventually building the communication device the army had requested. However, Brandeis scientists were unable to create the neural network, another necessary component. Thus, the challenge remained unsolved for a decade. 

The eureka moment came quite suddenly. “Once having thought of it,” Fraden said, “it seemed so obvious. … Why hadn’t I thought of this ten years ago?” 

Researchers in Fraden’s lab discovered that by applying  mathematical models to advanced materials, it was possible to map neural networks into chemical networks of the autonomous nervous system. 

The inspiration for this idea was an eel. Fraden explained that the eel’s “beautiful, mesmerizing, periodic undulations are coordinated down the long spine of the animal” and reveal “very, very simple mathematical neural networks — ones that are most [suitable] for implementation using our chemical system.” 

Fraden’s system acts as a chemical control unit that — when combined with equivalent musculature and neural networking — will result in “purely synthetic materials that have nothing biologic[al] in them, but are built on the same underlying engineering and design principles.” 

Fraden told the Justice  that his lab’s vision is to “make a new category of materials that resemble much more carefully that which we see on a daily basis but heretofore have been restrained to those of the living.” He hopes to accomplish this while “learn[ing] something about both the living and what’s possible in the world by trying to then distill the principles that are underlying in every organism.” 

To students at Brandeis aspiring to make a change in the scientific community, Fraden urged, “When you’re hired — when you leave here, nobody’s going to hire you to look for the things that are known; that’s what Wikipedia does. Go forward to contribute to the society that you need to create.”