Advisory Board

Professor Pier Luigi Luisi

The article There’s just one hurdle left in the quest to build an artificial cell, but is this life? said

Luisi says he’s following such studies closely, and will possibly use the results as a guide to build cells from scratch. But 271 is still far too many genes for his liking. By infusing droplets of commercially sold protein-expression solutions into liposomes, he has found that some cellular functions can occur with a mere 80 genes or so. Reducing the system below 15 components might lead to something that could be made from the ground up, he proposes. “The earliest cells may have contained maybe 10–15 components”, he says. “Of course they were limping. That’s the challenge of the research”, he adds — to rediscover “these limping old-timers.”

Professor Pier Luigi Luisi completed his degree in chemistry at the Scuola Normale Superiore at the University of Pisa, Italy, in 1963. After periods of post-doctoral work in St. Petersburg/Russia (conformational properties of optically active polymers), Uppsala/Sweden (light scattering), Eugene, OR/USA (enzymology), he joined the group of Professor Piero Pino at ETH Zürich in 1970. It is here that he started his professional career, first as Privatdozent, then as Assistant Professor. In 1984 he was appointed Full Professor for macromolecular chemistry. Together with Professor Pino and Professor Meissner, he founded the Institute of Polymers (IfP), at that time part of the Chemistry Department. When the IfP became part of the Material Science Department, Pier maintained his chair in chemistry and was actually Chair of the Chemistry Department. Later on, in 1999, his chair was moved to the Department of Material Science.
He has worked on many books including Reverse Micelles: Biological and Technological Relevance of Amphiphilic Structures in Apolar Media, Self-Production of Supramolecular Structures : From Synthetic Structures to Models of Minimal Living Systems (NATO Science Series C:), Giant Vesicles (Perspectives in Supramolecular Chemistry), Im Einvernehmen mit der Natur: Die Zukunft von Okologie, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft, and Vom Ursprung des Universums zur Evolution des Geistes. His latest book is The Emergence of Life : From Chemical Orgins to Synthetic Biology.
His research activities as well as his teaching duties were always at the interface between macromolecular chemistry and biology, with questions such as “why are enzymes macromolecules?” and more recently about “the never born proteins”, i.e. proteins that have not come into existence on our Earth. His main research activity in the last fifteen years or so was centered on surfactant aggregates such as micelles, vesicles, gels, and particularly on spherical aggregates as models for biological cells — see his studies on self-reproducing micelles and vesicles, or his project on the minimal living cell. He started the Swiss Colloid Group, of which he was the first president. Pier has been also active in the European chemistry research activities, as coordinator of three COST chemistry actions.
Pier is the founder of the Cortona week: i.e. one week per year which is devoted to the interdisciplinarity of science and humanities, in existence since 1985.