Xianrui has always been curious about how things work and wanted to build cool things like those seen in science fiction. To find his own scientific path, he first pursued research training in computational biology and developmental biology as a graduate student, and then in biochemistry and cell biology as a postdoctoral scholar.

Xianrui’s lab at USC wants to understand the design logic of natural cells and use that knowledge to build artificial cells. To do this, the lab uses the frog Xenopus laevis as an experimental model system, because the internal ‘juice’ (cytoplasm) extracted from Xenopus eggs (called egg extracts) can self-restore the form and function of real living cells. Specifically, scrambled egg extracts can self-assemble back into cell-like units that divide like real Xenopus cells. The lab is now combining experiments and mathematical modeling to elucidate the mechanisms underlying this self-organization phenomenon. These mechanisms will teach us how functional cells may be constructed from a pool of molecular constituents, which will be particularly instructive for engineering synthetic cells.