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Acc Chem Res. 2012 Dec 18;45(12):2160-8. doi: 10.1021/ar200251j. Epub 2011 Dec 28.

Chemical oscillators in structured media.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, Brandeis University, MS 015, Waltham, Massachusetts 02454-9110, USA. epstein@brandeis.edu


Evolution is a characteristic feature of living systems, and many fundamental processes in life, including the cell cycle, take place in a periodic fashion. From a chemistry perspective, these repeating phenomena suggest the question of whether reactions in which concentrations oscillate could provide a basis and/or useful models for the behavior of organisms, and perhaps even their ability to evolve. In this Account, we examine several aspects of the behavior of the prototype oscillating chemical reaction, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) system, carried out in microemulsions, arrays of micrometer-sized aqueous droplets suspended in oil, or hydrogels. Each of these environments contains elements of the compartmentalization that likely played a role in the development of the first living cells, and within them we observe behaviors not found in the BZ reaction in simple aqueous solution. Several of these phenomena resemble traits displayed by living organisms. For example, the nanodroplets in a BZ microemulsion "communicate" with each other through a phenomenon analogous to quorum sensing in bacteria to produce a remarkable variety of patterns and waves on length scales 10(5) times the size of a single droplet. A photosensitive version can "remember" an imposed image. Larger, micrometer-sized droplets exhibit similarly rich behavior and allow for the observation and control of individual droplets. These droplets offer promise for building arrays capable of computation by varying the strength and sign of the coupling between drops. Gels that incorporate a BZ catalyst and are immersed in a solution containing the BZ reactants change their shape and volume in oscillations that follow the variation in the redox state of the catalyst. Using this phenomenon, we can construct phototactic gel "worms" or segments of gel that attract one another. Whether such systems will provide more realistic caricatures of life, and whether they can serve as useful materials will largely depend on the successful integration of various properties, including communication, motion, and memory, which we observed in separate experiments. Theoretical approaches that couple reaction and diffusion processes to mechanical and other material properties are likely to play a key role in this integration, and we describe one such approach. The evolution of systems of coupled chemical oscillators presents another challenge to the development of these systems, but one that we expect to be solved.

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