The toolbox of life

A ceremony on 16 April in Berlin marked the official start of the MaxSynBio research programme

April 21, 2015

Since its inception, biology has been about life. Yet, precisely what life is, not to mention how it emerged, remains unclear. The researchers involved in the MaxSynBio programme would like to contribute to finding answers to these questions. Together with the President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann, and representatives of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), they presented their research programme at Harnack House, the Max Planck Society’s conference venue in Berlin. “I firmly believe that the major investment made by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Max Planck Society in this programme will lead to fundamental new insights into the phenomenon of life,” said Martin Stratmann. Moreover, the scientists would like to establish the basis for new biotechnological applications, for example in medicine and the energy sector. The research programme also includes a project that examines science from an ethical perspective and researches the acceptance of synthetic biology among the general public.

At the ceremony in Berlin: Project coordinators Petra Schwille (right) and Kai Sundmacher (centre) with Max Planck President Martin Stratmann

 

The scientists who have joined forces to establish the MaxSynBio research network have an ambitious goal: They want to construct artificial cells, which imitate natural functions, from their components. In doing this, they aim to gain insight into a possible protocell. If it ever existed, such a protocell was the forebear of all living cells. “Our research may enable us to answer the question as to how life originated,” says Petra Schwille, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and coordinator of the MaxSynBio programme. The researchers view biological processes from an engineering perspective: The cell thereby becomes a machine that is composed of different modules, namely proteins, genes or entire metabolic cycles.


The MaxSynBio research network, which includes 13 Research Groups from nine Max Planck Institutes and from Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), has been in development since last summer and is now embarking on its scientific work. To mark this occasion, the MaxSynBio partners and representatives of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) gathered for a ceremony at Harnack House in Berlin. The BMBF is funding the programme for an initial period of three years as part of the “Biotechnologie 2020+” strategy. The funding was allocated by the BMBF following consultations with the MPG and other non-university research institutions, as well as universities and biotechnology companies. “I am delighted that the major research organisations participated in this dialogue process,” says Bärbel Brumme-Bothe from the BMBF.

Synthetic biology also focuses on application

Biology based on the toolbox principle: The scientists from nine Max Planck Institutes and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität use inanimate biochemical components to construct cell-like structures and, ultimately, artificial cells. In doing so, they aim not only to create the basis for various biotechnology applications, but also to understand the basic principles of life and its emergence.

 

Based on their approach to biological systems from an engineering perspective, the researchers also aim to access new possibilities for the application of their research findings. “We hope that it will be possible to tailor artificial cells for biotechnological production, which do not have the disadvantages of natural cells,” explains Kai Sundmacher, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems in Magdeburg and second coordinator of the MaxSynBio programme. The synthetic biology approach makes it possible to influence complex biological processes far more comprehensively than was possible up to now. For example, synthetic cells can be equipped with capacities that are not naturally available in cells. In addition to the optimisation of cells in this way, the disadvantages of natural systems can also be reduced in the context of biotechnological production – for example, when microorganisms form the desired substances, but trigger problems during large-scale production because they tend to easily flocculate in reactors. And in fact, the researchers have induced unicellular organisms to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which could only be obtained from a plant prior to this.


Humanities also have a part to play

Given the ambitious nature of the objectives of synthetic biology and its possibilities, it poses enormous challenges not only for scientists from the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and engineering, but also for humanities scholars – and, indeed, all of society. After all, those embarking on an expedition to the very boundaries of life, with the possibility of shifting these boundaries and making use of complex biological systems, is also entering new territory from an ethical, legal and social perspective. The actors from the field of synthetic biology – scientists ranging from biologists to legal scholars and research policy makers – are aware of this, and are engaging in the corresponding debates. This is the only way they can ensure that a responsible approach will be adapted to the possibly pioneering insights and progress attained through synthetic biology and the acceptance of these attainments by society. “In our view, the question as to how we gain acceptance in society for such new technologies is a very important one,” says Bärbel Brumme-Bothe. How synthetic biology is perceived as a form of research that has a particular relevance from an ethical perspective is the subject of research being carried out by a team headed by Peter Dabrock, Professor at Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg as part of the MaxSynBio programme.

To mark the start of the MaxSynBio programme, the Max Planck Society has launched the website www.synthetische-biologie.mpg.de, which provides comprehensive information on all aspects of synthetic biology.

 

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