Over the past century, biological research into how living cells function has led to advances in medicine, industry, and our understanding of what life is. Even with these extraordinary scientific discoveries, scientists still are far from understanding many of the first principals of cellular life. Synthetic Biology is a field that is an amalgam of molecular biology, biochemistry, computational science, and engineering. The rationale for this research is to fully understand how chemical components come together to make a living cell. This research may result in the construction of a bacterial cell from non-living parts. Recent work at the J. Craig Venter Institute produced a bacterial cell that had only a minimal set of genes necessary for life. The organism had only 474 genes and almost all were very similar to genes in the other organisms that live on Earth. Despite all of the advances of biological science, researchers still do not know the function of more than one third of those essential-for-life genes. The synthetic bacterial cells created through this project will catalyze an expansion of biological knowledge that may result in better health, improvements in biomanufacturing, new tools to preserve the environment, and other applications that will enhance the lives of humans everywhere. The rule of life to be investigated asks, on the molecular level, what are the necessary components of an organism that are required to call it alive? The researchers will use results of the experimental studies to develop theoretical frameworks for understanding the basic components and key elements of a living cell.

To build a synthetic cell this project will combine the expertise of three scientists from different fields. The project leader, John Glass, is a synthetic biologist and part of the Venter Institute team that constructed the minimal bacterial cell. Kate Adamala is a biochemist with expertise building non-living cell-like vesicles. Chris Kempes is a computational biologist who creates mathematical and computational models of living cells that will guide the selection the chemical parts that will be assembled. This team will combine a synthetic DNA genome capable of programming cell and cellular hardware such as enzymes, membranes, amino acids, salts, and vitamins in such a way as to form a bacterial cell.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB)
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Charles Cunningham
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J. Craig Venter Institute, Inc.
La Jolla
United States
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