The Max Planck Society and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research dedicate the new research project MaxSynBio to Synthetic Biology. Research groups from nine Max Planck Institutes across Germany, as well as the Department of Theology of the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, are involved. The project started on 1st of August 2014 and will run initially until the end of July 2017 with the option of an extension for additional three years. The scientific coordinators of the project are Prof. Dr.-Ing. Kai Sundmacher (MPI for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems, Magdeburg) and Prof. Dr. Petra Schwille (MPI for Biochemistry, Martinsried).
What are the essential mechanisms of biological cells – the fundamental units of life? In fact, what is life? And how can we make targeted use of biological structures for technological applications? The new research project MaxSynBio of the Max Planck Society faces these questions with the support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
The cell as factory
„What I cannot create, I do not understand.“ This quote of the American physicist Richard Feynman can be also applied to the life sciences. Traditionally, biological research follows the paradigm of pure observation and description: biological matter is examined as it is normally found in nature. However, a mechanistic point of view on biological life has been established in the life sciences due to the knowledge gained from molecular and cell biology. Within that, a cell can be considered as a highly complex factory, which is equipped with “machines” that perform variety of different tasks. Machines can be dismantled and designed. Thus, a new research discipline – the so-called Synthetic Biology, has recently evolved in the life sciences. Within Synthetic Biology, the biological matter shall not only be observed, but also engineered.
Minimal cells, artificial cells and protocells – what does Synthetic Biology mean?
Overall aim of Synthetic Biology is the identification of a minimal, but sufficient basic configuration of a biological cell. Which functions, and thereby, which proteins and genes, does a cell need in order to be able to fulfil its most important tasks – growth, replication and metabolism? On the one hand, by constructing such minimal and artificial cells by means of a targeted design, scientists want to find out how the very first cells evolved from the inorganic „primordial soup“ and how they might have looked like. Therefore, minimal cells are often described as the ancestors of the cells, which exist today on Earth, and also called protocells. On the other hand, such a minimal cell could also serve as the ideal platform for installing further functions, which perform certain technological tasks, such as the production of pharmaceuticals, energy recovery or elimination of pollutants. In Synthetic Biology the question about origin of life and the aim of optimizing biological matter for technological applications are tackled by using two different concepts: Top-down and Bottom-up. In the first case, the genetic constitution of existing cells is reprogrammed in order to modify them or even to create a completely new organism. Promising initial achievements in this direction have been reported by the American biochemist Craig Venter and his co-workers in the case of simple bacteria. However, this method requires existing and already functioning, i.e. living organism. Hence, due to the complexity of biological cells, it is more difficult to investigate the basic principles of life by means of the Top-down approach.
Copying life – brick by brick
The research project MaxSynBio follows a completely different and radical pathway based on the Bottom-up approach. In this case the scientists assemble new biomimetic structures that should imitate the functions of biological cells by using biochemical components, such as lipids, proteins and DNA, which are non-living matter. Nowadays, scientists assume that a basic requirement for the origin of life – so to speak the “germ cell” – was the compartmentalization of small spaces. Therefore, one of the first steps of MaxSynBio is the establishment of very small, semi-permeable compartments in form of manipulable droplets and lipid vesicles. At the same time, a modular “building block” system of the most important components should be composed and installed into the compartments in order to perform cellular functions, such as metabolism and energy production. Thus, by means of the Bottom-up concept, Synthetic Biology becomes independent of microorganisms, which bring along their own evolutionary history, and can also specifically adapt the newly designed structures to the relevant requirements.
Cross-border research – between biology and engineering, between science and society
Since the Bottom-up approach will be used for investigation of fundamental biological mechanisms, the research concept belongs to the area of fundamental research, the core competence of the Max Planck Society. On the other side, the engineering idea, which is in this project firmly underpinned by Process Systems Engineering, enables this research initiative to spread far beyond the conventional approaches in life sciences. Accordingly, in MaxSynBio natural scientists and engineers work together on the realisation of artificial biological structures. Moreover, the Chair of Systematic Theology II (Ethics) of the Friedrich-Alexander University Nürnberg-Erlangen will address the ethical, sociological and philosophical aspects of Synthetic Biology. At the same time the research network will also seek for close contact with the public. The involved Max Planck Institutes are located in Magdeburg, Marburg, Stuttgart, Göttingen, Mainz, Potsdam, Dortmund, Martinsried and Dresden.