Alfred P Sloan Foundation – Matter-to-Life Programme

Closing Date: –

International grants programme to support research investigating the physical principles and mechanisms governing living systems.

Alfred P Sloan Foundation is a not-for-profit grant-making institution based in the USA. Founded in 1934 by the industrialist Alfred P Sloan Jr, the foundation supports scientific research, higher education as well as public understanding and engagement with science. Its grants programme cover several broad subject areas related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics.

The Matter-to-Life Programme is dedicated to enhancing the scientific understanding of the physical principles and mechanisms that distinguish living systems from inanimate matter, and explore the conditions under which physical principles and mechanisms guide the complexification of matter towards life. Funding is provided for both theoretical and experimental research. This includes well-conceived research projects in biology, physics, chemistry and engineering. Interdisciplinary approaches are particularly encouraged. The focus is on projects that explore the matter-life boundary in comparatively simple systems, rather than animal-based or social-science experiments that study complex higher-level organism behaviours.

The programme supports curiosity-driven research in three focus areas: Building Life; Principles of Life; and Signs of Life.

1. Building Life

Projects in this focus area should seek to advance our understanding of the matter-life boundary by constructing artificial (synthetic biological or abiotic) microscale systems that either teach us about important life-sustaining processes or lead to entities that mimic key life-like behaviours.

Example research questions may include:

  • Can abiotic matter systems be developed that leverage information stored in submicron building blocks to self-assemble, replicate, metabolise, heal, or adapt?
  • Can we build nanoscale molecular machines capable of complex motions and functions that compare to those exhibited by the molecular machines of life?
  • How does one build a macroscopic structure using hierarchical design principles and submicron building blocks?
  • Can synthetic cell communities achieve complex functions cooperatively through local cell-cell interactions?
  • Can we build a live synthetic cell?

2. Principles of Life

Projects in this focus area should attempt to identify the key physical principles that govern living systems broadly conceived by identifying the principles governing biological organisms. This includes  both reductionistic and top-down efforts.

Example research questions may include:

  • Does nonequilibrium physics contribute to the development of structure across scales in biology?
  • Can we understand and control how simple molecules evolve under environmental pressure to more complex functional molecules?
  • Can scale-invariant physics be identified in living systems?
  • Can we gain a comprehensive, quantitative understanding of how cells use entropy to maintain themselves as stable entities far from equilibrium?
  • Are state-dependent laws needed to describe life?

3. Signs of Life

Projects in this focus area should attempt to sharpen our understanding of the distinctive signatures associated with living systems by identifying such signatures, quantifying these signatures, and exploring the physical principles and mechanisms underlying these signatures.

Example research questions may include:

  • Can evolutionary adaptation be understood as a special case of a more general principle describing how complex systems evolve in response to environmental change?
  • Are there quantitative metrics that can be used to distinguish living from nonliving systems?
  • Are there atmospheric signatures of life?
  • What are the physical principles underlying various life-like behaviours of organisms?

In addition to research itself, the programme also supports scientific meetings that promote information exchange, the development of collaborations, and self-organising efforts aimed at making a case to other funders for supporting matter-to-life research. 

Funding is provided in the following four funding lines:

  • Sloan Matter-to-Life Seed Grant to support the development a detailed proposal for Sloan’s Matter-to-Life programme or to a funder with overlapping scientific interests.
  • Sloan Matter-to-Life Theory Investigator Award to support the development of promising yet less well-established ideas that could have significant impact. The grant may be awarded either to a single theory investigator or to a collaboration of theorists.
  • Sloan Matter-to-Life Research Award to support research projects by a single investigator or a research collaboration. Projects may be experiment-only, experiment combined with theory, or theory-only.
  • Sloan Matter-to-Life Research Collaboration Award to support the collaboration of two or more PIs.
Funding body Alfred P Sloan Foundation
Maximum value 2,500,000 USD
Reference ID S26398
Category Biotechnology and Biology
Engineering and Physical Sciences
Fund or call Fund