I write in strong support of this flagship proposal. This proposal addresses the most central and exciting question that we can ask about nature: "what is life?", or in other words: "how does a collection of nonliving molecules together generate a living cell?". The premise is that we can only truly understand life if we can recreate it from its component parts. 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. This flagship proposal presents a unique opportunity to bring life sciences, physics and chemistry together and put Europe at the international forefront of synthetic biology. In addition to providing revolutionary new insights into the origins of life, building a synthetic cell would also open a multitude of applications. Synthetic cells can be used as factories for bioactive compounds, as test beds in drug development, and as building blocks for materials with life-like properties such as stimuli-response, adaptibility, and self-repair.
"What I cannot create, I do not understand", is the famous quote from the physicist Richard Feynman. Building a living cell is clearly one of the most difficult, yet important challenges that lies ahead of us. This exciting Flagship proposal tackles this challenge and will provide a major leap forward in our understanding of what defines life. I fully support this project and its multidisciplinary approach, which will provide Europe with a competitive lead in the fields of synthetic biology and biotechnology.
We will gain incredible new biological insights by attempting to build a living cell from scratch. To accomplish this, we will need biologists, engineers, chemists and physicists to work together. From a molecular geneticist point of view, this is an extremely exciting project as it will provide us with the exact function of each essential gene, something that is unprecedented. For instance, in the project of Craig Venter, a minimal bacterial cell was constructed but the functions of 149 genes remain a complete mystery (Hutchinson et al., 2016 Science). The flagship project "Building a Synthetic Cell" will not only provide us clues into the origins of life, designer cells might become a real-world possibility allowing us to precisely produce novel or otherwise hard to obtain pharmaceuticals and enzymes. It can even be envisaged that such cells can be programmed to address other grant challenges such as water pollution, food supplements, vaccines, etc. In total, I fully support this Flagship and believe it is a unique opportunity for the excellent researchers in Europe that work at the interface of synthetic biology, cell biology and genetics to come together.
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.