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.
July 12‐14, 2017, Ringberg Castle, Germany.
A high-level, closed symposium exploring the scientific challenges, technological opportunities, and societal impact of one of the grand fundamental challenges of modern science – building a synthetic cell.
Participants were top scientists , including Nobel laureates, high-level policy makers, science academies and EC commission representatives.
An article about the Ringberg workshop and the Synthetic Cell Initiative on STAT, the online health and life-sciences publication from Boston Globe Media.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.