SynCell2019: Defining the Challenges

October 16-17, 2019, CSIC Headquarters, Madrid, Spain.

We will bring together top scientists, industries and policy makers on synthetic cell research to discuss the synthetic cell science and technology.

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1st International Symposium on Building a Synthetic Cell

The 1st International Symposium on Building a Synthetic Cell (BaSyC) was held on 28 and 29 August 2018 in Delft, the Netherlands. The global scientific meeting was fully dedicated to research on the bottom-up assembly of a functioning synthetic cell.

The BaSyC Symposium brought together top researchers in the synthetic cell field, as well as representatives of the industry and ethicists. During the symposium, 160 participants from 10 different countries attended 21 presentations, covering all aspects of building an autonomous, self-reproducing synthetic cell.

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The synthetic cell: a new frontier in science and technology for Europe

Can we build a living cell from lifeless components?

…and in doing so, understand how life works?

With this initiative we aim to address one of the grand scientific challenges of this century: building a synthetic cell from its molecular building blocks.
Understanding the mechanisms of cellular life will bring vast intellectual, scientific and technological rewards.

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Is it possible to build a living cell from individual, lifeless components? A cell is an extremely complex system made out of many different molecules. We do not fully understand how these molecules interact to form a living cell that sustains itself, grows and divides. With this initiative we aim to put together basic molecular components and have them interact, forming a functioning synthetic cell. Building a cell from the bottom up will help us answer the fundamental question of ‘how life works’.


Constructing a synthetic cell will result in a deeper understanding of how cells work at molecular level. This may lead to:

  • Drugs that are able to target specific locations and tissues in the body
  • Patient‐tailored treatments in personal medicine (a.o. for cancer)
  • New applications in drug delivery systems
  • Novel screening methods for antibiotics and drugs, biosensors and against antimicrobial resistance
  • New, smart and environment‐friendlier materials for high‐tech industry
  • New biofuels and biodegradable polymers
  • Facilitation of sustainable production of safe and healthy food
  • New materials for food biotechnology
  • New methods for pathogen control

Europe is home to a large number of world-class researchers from various countries and disciplines, currently working on different aspects of minimal life rather independently. There is a strong presence of bottom-up approaches to biology in the physics and chemistry research community in Europa, more so than in the US, where traditional cell biology and top-down approaches to minimal life are very strong.

The Synthetic Cell initiative is a unique opportunity to combine the efforts of European networks in life sciences, physics and chemistry. Together, these networks can take on the challenge and cement Europe’s role as a world leader in synthetic biology.

Clearly, building a synthetic cell and the fundamental insights that will come with it will have impact beyond scientific discoveries, influencing a broad range of industries in the areas of Health, Food, and (Bio-based) Materials. Industry is already demonstrating awareness of possible applications of synthetic biology. Pharmaceuticals, food, nutrition, self-healing materials, bioplastics and sustainable fuels are a few examples. The interest of companies will grow even more as the realization of a synthetic cell comes closer.

Indeed the path itself towards a synthetic cell already involves the development of numerous methods and tools with important spin-off possibilities in the form of test beds for synthetic biology applications, advanced drug delivery systems, drug-screening methods, and bionanodevices for multiplex detection of molecules.

The quest for synthetic life is a worldwide effort, in which the United States and Europe are currently playing a major role, though other countries are gearing up.

In recent years tremendous progress has been made in understanding biological processes at the molecular level. At the same time, technologies such as CRISPR have opened up unprecedented possibilities for genome engineering.
Bringing together all of this knowledge in order to build a synthetic cell is the next logical step: a scientific challenge of Nobel prize proportions, that will open up entire new areas for applications, from bioengineering to nanomedicine.

Importantly, the goal is within reach: we foresee results within 10-20 years.



What people say about this initiative

Many of the greatest scientific achievements have been sparked by fundamental research. This initiative is probably as fundamental as research in the life sciences can possibly be - it concerns the very transition from chemistry into biology. And still its implications reach far into biomedicine.

Petra Schwille

The magnitude of the challenge is tremendous, but European researchers are ready to take a global lead in the concerted, multinational effort across the physical and biological sciences that is required to build a synthetic cell.

Wilhelm Huck - Radboud University

At the fundamental level, the proposed research will allow us to understand what we mean by alive or dead, and explore the fascinating territory between these two states. From the practical viewpoint, research in this area will lead to synthetic cells and tissues that can be used in medical applications. These materials will be safe and inexpensive.

Hagan Bayley - University of Oxford

The construction of a synthetic cell will give unprecedented insight in the “laws of life”, and, ultimately, it will allow us to engineer different forms of life to address the Grand Challenges of Europe.

Bert Poolman - University of Groningen

Now is a perfect time to launch such an ambitious programme, because advances in the life sciences and in physics have converged on a detailed understanding of the component parts of life while chemistry has at the same time come to a point where (supra)molecular systems can be synthesized that are able to mimic key functions of biomolecules such as self-recognition and mechanochemical activity.

Gijsje Koenderink - Amolf & VU Amsterdam