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Why the bottom-up approach to synthetic cells works

By exploring bottom-up synthetic biology, our scientific community will identify the most fundamental functions of a cell that may be assembled in a minimal production line of high-tech and 100% biological materials. The technological possibilities of this research are now at a tipping point and will lead to a revolution in medicine, food and sustainability in the next 5 to 20 years.

Unlike most current man-made materials, these new materials are expected to rely on self-organizing and active, self-healing principles. They will also have the natural ability to grow and functionally interact with the human body, with regenerative medicine as one of the possibilities.

About the initiative

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 to understand how life works. There is currently a strong presence of bottom-up approaches to synthetic biology in Europe, whereas for example in the USA top-down approaches to minimal life are prevalent.

The Synthetic Cell initiative has its origins in a series of informal meetings in Europe that took place starting from 2015. Participants were scientists from the physics and chemistry communities from The Netherlands, Germany and UK with a common background in synthetic biology and an ambition to engineer synthetic life. The interest for our initiative is still growing and is now supported by researchers from 18 European countries, plus Israel. Companies are also interested in the initiative, due to its potential technological impact.

Thanks to the tremendous progresses in understanding the molecular machinery of life processes, and the development of tools such as CRISPR technology, building a synthetic cell from the bottom up is now within reach. It has become one of the foremost scientific and technological challenges of our time.

The synthetic cell revolution

picture: Graham Johnson

IS IT POSSIBLE TO BUILD A SYNTHETIC CELL FROM INDIVIDUAL, LIFELESS COMPONENTS?

Modern science is working hard to reveal the basic operating principles of life. While we now have extensive knowledge about the molecular building blocks that form the basis of complex life, we currently do not understand how these building blocks collectively operate. Indeed, the origin of life – where first cells emerged out of molecular components on the early earth – is one of science’s greatest remaining enigma’s.  We believe that the rise of synthetic biology offers an exciting new route to address this enigma.

We aim at putting together basic molecular components and have them interact into a functioning synthetic cell. Building a cell from the bottom up, will allow us to answer fundamental question of ‘how life works’.

 

FROM SCIENCE TO INDUSTRY TO SOCIETY: THE SYNTHETIC CELL REVOLUTION

Building a synthetic cell will not only answer one of the fundamental questions in science, namely ‘how does life work?’.
It will also lead to a new technological and societal revolution, comparable to the invention of computers. The path towards a synthetic cell itself will allow for the development of unprecedented new applications in many areas such as medicine, food, biomaterials and sustainable fuel. This will help mitigate global threats affecting Europe’s citizens and people further afield, such as climate change, food and energy crises, pandemics and chronic diseases.

Knowledge of life processes offers unprecedented opportunities for a healthy and sustainable world.

 

A RANGE OF NEW APPLICATIONS

Understanding how cell works will help us develop targeted drugs that
can be delivered to specific locations in the body, as well as patient-tailored treatments in medicine, for example for cancer. Similarly, it can pave the way for novel screening methods for antibiotics and drugs. A deeper understanding of the cell can also lead to new biosensors and it can help us in the struggle against antimicrobial resistance. Designing synthetic cell systems will allow us to produce new, smart and environment-friendlier materials for high-tech industry and new biofuels and biodegradable polymers. It will also facilitate the sustainable production of safe and healthy food: potential applications include the development of new materials for food biotechnology, fast and reliable analysis and control of contaminations, and new methods for pathogen control and for the prevention of animal and plant diseases.

Pharmaceuticals, food, nutrition, self-healing materials, bioplastics and sustainable fuels are merely a few examples of the sectors that will be impacted by synthetic cell technology.

 

Worldwide there are several initiatives based on complementary approaches to minimal life, notably in the US but also in Japan and Europe. We expect that a synthetic cell can be created within 10-20 years.

Europe has a large number of world-top researchers from various countries and disciplines, who are currently working on different aspects of minimal life rather independently. This initiative is a unique opportunity to combine the efforts of the diversity of networks already operating in Europe in life sciences, physics and chemistry.

Why so many efforts worldwide? Because this is a scientific challenge of Nobel prize relevance that will open up entire new opportunities in a wide range of application areas.

We are convinced that the opportunities that building synthetic cells offers for science, society and industry can be fully exploited only by combining the scientific efforts at European level and by addressing together the technological innovations, the benefits and also any concerns that it will imply.

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