SynCell is a timely initiative likely to be of crucial importance in our quest to understand cellular life and also develop the next generation of soft-matter technologies for applications ranging from therapy, diagnostics and drug development to the "green synthesis" of new compounds and materials.
How do molecules create life? Understanding the molecular mechanisms of life is the greatest challenge in the molecular sciences. The construction of a synthetic cell is the best approach to really uncover life's secrets. In recent decades, syntehtic biology has made tremendous progress in engineering living systems and creating minimal cells. However, only the bottom up construction of life requires us to address the fundamental challenge of understanding life. There is no blueprint to construct a living entity that can extract energy and nutrients from its environment to sustain itself, grow, and divide. Constructing a cell from its building blocks would be a monumental achievement and the fundamental breakthroughs in chemistry, physics and biology that will undoubtedly result from this effort will change the fields of physical and biological sciences forever. 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.
Now is the time for a synthetic cell flagship Complex networks of proteins, nucleic acids and small molecules sustain the essential processes of energy provision, gene expression and cell division that characterize living cells. Over the past decades, many of the molecules that make up cells have been identified and studied. Yet, despite increased chemical and physical understanding of these biomolecules and their mutual interactions, it remains elusive how they together form a cell that can autonomously grow and replicate. While we are not yet capable to construct such functional biological systems de novo, we can start to assemble and analyze minimal systems that mimic cellular behavior, with the ultimate goal to engineer a synthetic cell. I very much like the idea of constructing a minimal form of life; it is extremely challenging and requires the expertise of scientists from several disciplines but now is the time to bring the right people together. The proposal of Dogterom addresses a problem where Europe can make a difference. It requires long-term funding and a clear vision on which problems to tackle (how, when, where), and a strategy to effectively collaborate across various disciplines of the life, natural and computational sciences and the humanities; the topic will bring ethical and philosophical issues on “what is life”. 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.