NWO Summit Grant for studies on the evolution of living cells from lifeless molecules

A large consortium involving Wilhelm Huck, Professor in Physical Organic Chemistry at the Institute for Molecules and Materials (IMM) of Radboud University, has been awarded a NWO Summit Grant to work on the EVOLF programme. This program aims to bridge the knowledge gap between non-living and living matter by proposing to assemble a living synthetic cell from lifeless molecules. The ten-year funding from the Summit Grant will enable research groups to start the programme and play a prominent international role, thereby strengthening the long-term position of Dutch science. “I am pleased with this Summit grant. The transition from non-life to life is one of the biggest scientific questions, and with this I hope to be able to make a small contribution to it”, Huck says.

Living systems

All lifeforms that we know consist of cells, and all these cells consist of molecules. Notably, these molecules are not alive, yet a single cell is. How does a living cell emerge from a mere collection of inert molecules? Can we build a living cell from molecules in the laboratory? How many components would this take, and how should they be organized to cross the boundary from non-life to life? While theoretical considerations suggest a minimal number of about 250 protein-coding genes to build a cell, implying a staggering number of combinatorial options, current studies have only examined systems with a few tens of components. To bridge this gap, a radically different approach beyond the limits of rational design is required.



The EVOLF programme addresses this major unresolved question by using synthetic biology coupled with philosophy to explore the elusive gap between non-living and living matter. The programme builds on a solid scientific foundation where the consortium has already rationally designed synthetic cellular modules for a minimal genome, metabolism, and cell division. The innovative strategy of EVOLF is to expand this approach by using nature-inspired evolution and artificial intelligence (AI) to make a quantum leap towards establishing an autonomous synthetic cell that is truly alive. “In building a synthetic cell, we are challenged with integrating different modules and designing complex modules with specific functions for which we don't actually have a design,” Huck explains. “To overcome these bottlenecks, I want to use AI and experiments to create a kind of evolution machine.”

Physical Organic Chemistry

The Physical Organic Chemistry group, part of IMM, aims to understand how cells work: how does a collection of chemical reactions produce something we consider living systems? Many of the key functions typically associated with living systems, such as reaction to changes in the environment, autonomous decision making, and extracting energy and building blocks from the environment for cell growth and division, are all governed by enzymatic reaction networks. Constructing synthetic systems that capture some of these capabilities—life-inspired systems—would represent a truly disruptive development, challenging our notion of what differentiates living systems from synthetic, man-made devices. 

“With this programme, we can make a quantum leap by employing laboratory evolution, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to go beyond the limits of rational design. We aim to integrate the various cellular functions into one unified synthetic cell that can autonomously self-replicate, communicate, and evolve,” Huck says. 

NWO Summit Grant 

The Summit grant, funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), supports top-tier research consortia that have demonstrated excellence through existing partnerships and are poised to achieve world-class status. These projects have already made significant scientific breakthroughs and will now have the opportunity to advance further, contributing valuable new knowledge to society. The grant also facilitates the training of a new generation of researchers, ensuring the sustainability and continuation of high-quality research.

We warmly congratulate Wilhelm with his grant!

Wilhelm Huck
Professor Wilhelm Huck

Contact information

Official press release NWO: From quantum to climate: five teams of top scientists receive Summit grant | NWO
Website Huck group: Physical-Organic Chemistry - Physical-Organic Chemistry (ru.nl)

Sustainability, Artificial intelligence (AI), Molecules and materials, Laws of nature, Science