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Mission Statement by the Director

About iCeMS science

Susumu
Kitagawa

Director
Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMS)
Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Study

Cells comprise chemical materials, such as nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, and sugars. This ultimately means that all cellular processes are interpretable as chemical events, and accordingly that a chemical understanding of cells should allow us to mimic cellular processes using chemical materials. Our institute seeks to develop materials to comprehend cellular functions (materials for understanding cells), produce materials to control processes in cells (materials for controlling cells), and eventually to create functional materials inspired by cellular processes (cell-inspired materials). Combining Kyoto University’s established strengths in cell biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics to delve deeply into this field at the boundary of materials and life, we make concerted efforts through interdisciplinary research to pioneer the new research domain of integrated cell-material sciences.

What is needed to that end? A large collection of researchers studying both cells and materials? In my view, truly interdisciplinary research grows out of friendly competition under one roof among outstanding talents with a great trail-blazing spirit and skills in their respective areas of expertise. In other words, a new discipline can evolve only out of coexistence and interaction between researchers—those with a real understanding of cells and those with mastery of materials. Participation by young, creative, and flexible researchers will also be important in addition to mature researchers who have already established their research areas. These researchers should not only explore their individual areas but also possess a broad vision. At the same time, their research environment should facilitate awareness of other fields of study. We at iCeMS have conquered the former challenge by aggressively seeking out qualified researchers to build our organization, and our research environment itself serves as a gateway for researchers to other disciplines in regards to the latter task.

To give a more concrete example, iCeMS provides open offices so researchers in different disciplines can sit side by side and inspire each other. And almost all iCeMS events, including symposiums and retreats, are attended by researchers in the two fields of cells and materials. These researchers are required to make their expertise understood by those in other fields while also convincing their own peers with the content of their studies. This means that iCeMS researchers must identify and transmit, precisely and comprehensively, the originality and essence of their respective studies. Only after such information is successfully conveyed can we inspire other researchers and develop an environment for generating ideas.

One can certainly make the argument that information and values cannot be shared among researchers in different fields. At iCeMS, however, we have overcome this difficulty and turned it to our advantage by appreciating different views and values, and all members share a strong will to explore new research horizons to achieve the goals of our institute. As a result, we have a keen sense of our groundbreaking attitudes and values. In the iCeMS research environment we focus our efforts on examining the following two questions:

1. Can we describe cellular processes in terms of chemistry and create materials to control them?

Cells sustain life through self-assembly and cooperative interactions among great numbers of chemical materials. To understand these cellular events, we must create chemicals and materials for observational study and use them to advance cell analysis. Based on our findings in these analyses, we seek to investigate materials for cell control with a special focus on stem cells.

2. Can we reproduce cellular structures with materials?

Renowned physicist Richard P. Feynman once wrote, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” In other words, only in the process of creation can we achieve true understanding. The replication of cellular functions with designed materials should be possible once a full understanding of cellular processes has been achieved. We are simultaneously working to advance analysis and synthesis, applying the resulting higher level of knowledge to further research, and striving for the creation of new materials.