Message from the Director

 “What is life?” This ultimate question fascinates not only scientists, but all human beings. Our universe was born 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang, followed by the formation of atoms and molecules, stars, and planets, including the Earth. Eventually, about 4 billion years ago, life arose on Earth. But how did mere aggregates of atoms and molecules become life? What differentiates between inanimate matter and life?
 These questions have been asked often in recent years, perhaps due to increasing general interest not only in life and ourselves, human being, but also in the development of cutting edge bio-technology, such as embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent (iPS) cells, which can develop into any other type of cell in the body. The application of these cells to regenerative medicine is eagerly anticipated, and expectations are high. From a different viewpoint, the emergence of new scientific fields such as synthetic biology and protocell biology, which seek to artificially produce cells and even life, may allow us to confront these questions directly. Moreover, rapid advances in technology have contributed to the ‘computerization’ of the world and machine intelligence, resulting in blurring of the lines between humans and material/information world. These changes, in turn, challenge our fundamental concepts of life and mind. From this perspective, the original question “What is life?” can be rephrased as other universal questions: “What is intelligence?” or “What is human being?”
 To establish a new academic discipline that tackles these questions, The University of Tokyo inaugurated the Universal Biology Institute (UBI). The UBI seeks to gather together university researchers from different biological fields, such as theoretical, quantitative, and synthetic biology, who thus far have been working separately at different departments and institutes in the university, and promote close collaboration among them. In addition, the institute will promote collaboration with other research groups worldwide. Advances in technology have enabled us to obtain a large amount of biological data regarding genetics, proteomics, and metabolomics; however, the fundamental properties of life as a system, as well as the universal properties and rules potentially embedded in such large datasets, remain to be uncovered. Under these circumstances, the UBI was founded to elucidate universal mechanisms or rules underlying all living organisms by integrating mathematics and physics methods into life sciences. To this end, we will also conduct educational research that combines undergraduate and graduate education with cutting-edge research.
 The Institute includes five groups: Theory, Dynamics Research, Synthesis, Measurement, and Information Integration. Each group’s mission (Understand, Track, Synthesize, Measure, and Integrate) is presented in the following pages. I hope that the Institute will contribute to creating innovation in new biotechnology, as well as in biology as a whole. I also hope that the Institute serves as a starting point for science that addresses the question “What is life?”

Hideo Higuchi, Director
Universal Biology Institute, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo