One chemist’s solution for re-using industrial polymers: the cell-like microgel

Polymer chemist Julian Thiele of the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research Dresden extracts the protein-making skills from living cells and places them inside polymer microgels. His ambition: to teach the cell’s enzymes to accept synthetic substrates that can make new compounds, for example from inert industrial chemicals. “We are now applying polymer materials in new ways using biology.”

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Charting the blueprints for future disease treatments through cell self-organisation

Prize-winning ERC grantees Anna Akhmanova and Marileen Dogterom combined cutting-edge research in the fields of biophysics and biology to achieve a better understanding of how cells self-organise. Their findings could have far-reaching implications for our ability to manipulate cells and treat diseases such as cancer.

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Researchers discover how a cell’s armour can be both flexible and strong

Medieval knights either had thick, cumbersome armour, or they could wear less protective armour – they couldn’t have both. Cells, on the other hand, do have it all. Researchers from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), Leeds University, Institut Fresnel in Marseille, and Institut Curie in Paris discovered that proteins called ‘septins’ reinforce the fragile membrane of a cell, while still being flexible enough to allow the cell to change shape.

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Tobias Erb on turning CO2 into valuable products

What if we could transform the harmful CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere into useful products? Using synthetic biology methods, Prof. Dr. Tobias Erb and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology have constructed an artificial CO2-fixation cycle. This discovery of synthetic photosynthesis could become a solution for turning CO2 into products such as pharmaceuticals or biofuels.

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Designing minimal cells with 3D bioprinting

PhD student Hiromune Eto, Prof. Dr. Petra Schwille and co-workers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry managed to make cell structures change shape by 3D-printing proteins on the microscale. Hiromune Eto: “3D bioprinting gives us clues as to why cells or organelles are shaped the way they are.”

Read the interview and watch a bioprinter at work

Jean-Christophe Baret on making cells that produce new materials

What if we could get cells to produce materials for us? Microfluidics is the technology of controlling soft and biological matter at a small scale. Prof. Dr. Jean-Christophe Baret and his team at the CRPP institute in Bordeaux create chips to harness different functions in cells, like their ability to transform matter. In the coming years their research could lead to more sustainable solutions, for bioresources or waste management.

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We are a cutting-edge community of synthetic cell researchers and institutions as well as world-leading companies. The Synthetic Cell Initiative, formed in 2017, intends to offer researchers, companies and policymakers a platform to combine efforts to build cells from their basic parts.

As a community we are committed to:

  • Exploring how life works, by assembling cell parts from the bottom-up: building a functioning cell is one of the grand scientific and intellectual challenges of the 21st century.
  • Enabling the technological application of synthetic cell research: if we can figure out how cells works, we can imitate what they do in order to create nature-based applications and contribute to a circular economy.
  • Encouraging discussion on ethical and RRI aspects of synthetic cell research and technology.

Building a functioning cell is one of the grand scientific challenges of the 21st century. Imagine if we could find the answer to the question: “How does life work?” And imagine that from that knowledge, we could build a material that is 100% reusable, or that can heal itself when damaged.

Our community is composed of researchers that are world-leading chemists, physicists and biologists working on specific aspects and functions of the cell. The aim of this community is to bring this range of expertise together, allowing us to harness the power of biology in completely new ways.

Download our leaflet of the Synthetic Cell Initiative HERE.

Building a synthetic cell and the fundamental insights that come with it, will have impact beyond scientific discoveries, influencing a broad range of industries in the areas of health, food and biobased materials. 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

Pharmaceuticals, food, nutrition, self-healing materials, bioplastics and sustainable fuels are a few examples of applications that come from the research field of building synthetic cells. The interest of companies will grow even more as the reality of a synthetic cell comes closer.

The path towards a synthetic cell 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.

Want to get involved with the Synthetic Cell initiative? Get in touch with us!

In recent years tremendous progress has been made in the quest for synthetic cells. The United States and Europe are currently major players in this field. Our knowledge on how to build synthetic cells from their basic parts is now at a tipping point: bringing all this knowledge together will lead to revolutionary new technologies.

Close collaboration of synthetic cell scientists with governments and industry is essential: in the next 5 – 20 years this scientific field has the potential to take on global challenges in health, food and sustainability.

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