Radboud University helps to build an artificial cell

Date of news: 11 May 2017

Radboud University helps to build an artificial cell

The Dutch research consortium BaSyc is taking up the challenge of building an artificial cell. To that end, it received 18.8 million Euro from the NWO Gravitation Program. TU Delft is leading the consortium. Professor Wilhelm Huck, Physical Organic Chemistry, Radboud University is one of the six main applicants: “Understanding how non-living matter maintains a living cell will generate huge intellectual, scientific and technological returns."

The BaSyC consortium wants to build an autonomous self-reproducing cell – which is basically the same as creating artificial life. This is seen as one of the great scientific challenges of the 21st century. Although knowledge of the molecular building blocks that form life has accumulated in recent decades, it is still an enigma how life springs from these building blocks when put together. BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell) is a joint project of TU Delft, University of Groningen, VU Amsterdam, Wageningen University, Radboud University and AMOLF.

Radboud Contribution: molecular software and self-organization The physical organic chemistry group from the Institute of Molecules and Materials at Radboud University will contribute its expertise on molecular software and self-organization to the BaSyc project. How does a mixture of simple chemical reactions create something that we would call life? Professor Wilhelm Huck:  “To solve this question we’re building chemical reaction networks that can be used as a kind of molecular software to control the future artificial cell.” In addition, his group looks at the special organization of molecules in a cell: even though it seems completely jam-packed with molecules, these molecules appear to organize themselves into the most efficient spatial structure, which makes them available for further processing at the right place and the right time. Huck aims to elucidate the driving forces behind this self-organization and the implications for intracellular chemistry.

The artificial cell as a philosophical experiment

Building an artificial cell will also raise societal and ethical questions: enthusiasm concerning novel applications, but also unease. The BaSyc consortium doesn’t shy away from these issues. Hub Zwart, Professor of Philosophy of the Natural Sciences at Radboud University will address the philosophical implications of the creation of artificial life. ‘It may challenge our understanding of nature and our views on the role of science. If we can build an artificial cell and if life proves technically reproducible, will this imply that we finally know what life is? Will it put an end to the time-old idea that there is a special force or spark at work in living systems, which distinguishes them for inorganic nature? Can nature itself be regarded as an outdoors laboratory, and will the artificial cell unleash a new chapter in the history of evolution?’

More about BaSyc in the press release from TUDelft

With the NWO Gravitation Program, the Dutch government stimulates excellent research in the Netherlands. It is intended for scientific consortia who have the potential to be world leading in their field.

Contact Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Huck, w.huck@science.ru.nl, http://www.ru.nl/physicalorganicchemistry/