Building a living cell from lifeless molecules

About the episode

All life forms are made of cells, and all cells are made of molecules. But those molecules are not alive, while the cell as a whole is alive. How does such a living cell emerge from a collection of dead molecules?

An interdisciplinary team of Dutch scientists will try to build a living artificial cell that will better answer these questions. A cell that can replicate itself, communicate and develop.

Such a cell is more complex than any other smart material scientists have developed in the laboratory. That is why collaboration between scientists and research disciplines is so essential in this field. The consortium will now receive 40 million to take the next steps in research together.

If they succeed in building the cell, they will be closer to answering a rather big question: What is life? When can you talk about it? How do you go from a single cell to a multicellular cell?

“How can a cell actually grow?” How could it divide at just the right time, now that it had reached the right size? “We can answer all kinds of very big open questions in biology,” says Gijsi Koenderink of TU Delft, one of the researchers on the project. You will focus on cell division, but also on how cells interact with their environment.

Better understanding how it all works is one part. Better understanding how something goes wrong, for example in some diseases, is another matter. “For example, in cancer, where the cells completely lose control and start dividing exponentially. Then there is no brake at all.

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This research will also potentially provide new leads for treatments, because of what we have learned from such an artificial cell. But the artificial cell itself can also be used. “This includes cell-based therapies, also to combat a disease such as cancer.”

Then, you will soon have a cell on the shelf that you can adjust at will and that can be used in the body to release substances there, for example. But you can also use such a cell as a factory outside the body, to produce materials for treatments or raw materials for food, for example.

Such a living artificial cell is of course a bit exciting. That’s why philosophers and behavioral scientists are also involved in the project. Because how are we going to deal with this new form of life?

It’s nice to think about it, but of course we’re not there yet. Each step in this project, although a long-term one, will likely yield indispensable knowledge.

Read more about the scholarship awarded here: Creating life from lifeless biomolecules using artificial intelligence and laboratory evolution

Four other research projects also received significant financial support. You can read more about this topic here: From quantum to climate: Five teams of top scientists receive summit grants

Megan Vasquez

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