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 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.
„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.
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.
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.