Building blocks of life

Building blocks of life

Life consists of dead matter. Scientists from the Max Planck Society and the University of Bristol intend to carry out research at a joint research centre to show that this is not necessarily a paradox. Researchers at the Max Planck-Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology will construct artificial cytoskeletons and develop nano-scale molecular machines to investigate the building blocks necessary for life.

Synthetic biology and minimal biology deal with the transition from inanimate to animate matter. Scientists hope that this rapidly growing field of research will not only provide them with insights into how life on Earth came about:

findings from the field of synthetic biology also have considerable economic potential, for example in medicine or material development. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies will benefit from it in future, as will companies that develop new materials. Compared to countries such as the USA or Japan, however, Europe invests significantly less in this new research field. The purpose of the Bristol Max Planck Centre is to close this gap.

The participating scientists from the Max Planck Society and the University of Bristol are ideally placed to make it one of the world's leading research facilities in the field of Synthetic Biology: They use state-of-the-art research methods and complement one another in their respective areas of expertise. They also work closely with other institutes and research-based companies, so that they can quickly test their findings for practical feasibility.

Simplification as a goal

Both dead and living matter are essentially based on the same physical and chemical processes. However, living cells are characterized by the fact that they can multiply and pass on information as well as convert energy. The scientists at the new centre therefore want to find out how inanimate matter can acquire such properties, to which end they want to create simple, self-perpetuating units. Their long-term objective is to develop progenitor cells – so-called protocells – equipped with the specific precursor properties required for life.

For example, viable cells need a supporting skeleton so that they can retain their shape and, for instance, move around. Such cytoskeletons are to be completely redeveloped at the Bristol Max Planck Centre, and will one day give shape to artificial cells. Instead of optimizing the biomolecules found in nature, the researchers will use completely new proteins that are easier to form into the correct spatial shape and are more stable.

In addition, the scientists at the new centre want to optimize the genetic material of cells so that it only contains those genes that are absolutely necessary for survival. Such a "minimal cell" could provide them with a wealth of information about what a functional cell must be capable of. The scientists have also set themselves the ambitious goal of turning an animal or plant virus into an artificial, easy-to-program gene shuttle with which scientists can equip cells, tissues and organisms with new properties.   

Image: MPI-CBG/ Drobot, Tang

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