The Dutch research consortium BaSyC is taking on the challenge of building a synthetic biological cell. To that end, it has received a grant of almost € 19 million from the Gravitation programme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The research partners themselves will  fund the remaining six million of the more than € 25 million that the research programme will cost in total. TU Delft coordinates the consortium, made up of researchers from five universities and AMOLF, one of the NWO research institutes. ‘A fundamental understanding of life within a cell will bring huge intellectual, scientific and technological rewards.’

Artist’s impression (Graham Johnson) of a synthetic cell, representing the three basic processes taking place in a living cell: cell fuelling (green), DNA processing (orange/red), and cell division (blue). In the BaSyC programme we take on the challenge to bring the essential components of a cell together, controlling the complex interactions among them and constructing a synthetic cell with the basic functionalities of a living cell: self-sustained growth, transmission of information, and division.

Life

The cell is the basis of all organisms. Building a synthetic biological cell is one of science's greatest challenges of the 21st century. We already have extensive knowledge of the molecular building blocks that form the basis of life, but we do not yet understand how they work together to make life possible. The BaSyC consortium therefore aims to combine biomolecular building blocks to construct an autonomous, self-reproducing cell: a cell that can sustain itself, grow and reproduce’, says coordinating scientist Prof. Marileen Dogterom, head of TU Delft's BioNanoscience department.

Bottom-up

‘We intend to build this synthetic cell from the bottom up, which is the most fundamental strategy for learning to understand a cell’, continues Dogterom. ‘A fundamental understanding of life within a cell will bring huge intellectual, scientific and technological rewards. At the same time, it will raise philosophical and ethical questions about how society should deal with this new understanding and potential.’
‘We plan to derive the molecular building blocks and mechanisms for our synthetic cell from various existing rudimentary organisms. This means that the end product will function based on the principles of life as we know it, without mimicking any specific existing species.’

Video animation ’BaSyC: Building a synthetic cell, bottom-up’ by Enrique Sahagún

Opportunities

Knowledge of the processes of life opens up unprecedented opportunities for a healthy and sustainable world in many areas, such as healthcare, agriculture, materials and energy. According to Dogterom, a better understanding of the molecular basis for cellular behaviour can contribute to the future development of targeted medication and personalised treatments for chronic diseases, such as cancer.

‘Potential applications include new screening methods for antibiotics and medicines, biosensors and solutions to antimicrobial resistance’. Designing synthetic cellular systems will also enable humankind to produce new, smart and environmentally-friendly materials for high-tech industry, new biofuels and biodegradable polymers. It will also help facilitate the sustainable production of safe and healthy food.

Consortium

‘A major challenge of this kind cannot be tackled by a single research group or even a single scientific discipline’, says Dogterom. ‘It calls for the concerted efforts of scientists who excel in various fields of research. This is why we are taking on the challenge of building a synthetic cell with a group of leading Dutch scientists with complementary knowledge of chemistry, physics and biology. For the first time, the consortium brings together a truly interdisciplinary team of experts to construct the first synthetic cell from the bottom up.’
BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) is a joint project involving TU Delft, University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam, Wageningen University & Research, Radboud University Nijmegen and AMOLF.

With the NWO Gravitation programme, the government encourages outstanding research in the Netherlands. It is intended for scientific consortia that have the potential to rank among the world's best

More information
‘Life from the lab’, research story from TU Delft Faculty of Applied Sciences. 
'Synthetic cells - Towards the giant leap from molecules to life
Video animation ’BaSyC: Building a synthetic cell, bottom-up’ by Enrique Sahagún.

Contact
Prof. Marileen Dogterom (BaSyC coordinating scientist and head of TU Delft's BioNanoscience department), M.Dogterom@tudelft.nl, +31 (0)6 22584522
Claire Hallewas (TU Delft Media Relations Officer), C.R.Hallewas@tudelft.nl, +31 (0)6 40953085