What’s on the menu? Molecular cuisine, or how to feed a synthetic cell

Project

What’s on the menu? Molecular cuisine, or how to feed a synthetic cell

We are what we eat, the common saying goes. It’s therefore not strange to propose the following: what synthetic cells shall be will depend on what they eat! Their engineered metabolism will be the key factor determining what’s on the menu, ultimately shaping the functionality and eventually the utility of synthetic cells.

Background

Synthetic biology merges biology and engineering: it studies existing biological systems and characterizes its components individually in order to create novel biological circuits and even new forms of life. Along these lines, microorganisms can be engineered to perform particular functions and potentially help us solve modern problems at will.

How did life start? One of the biggest unanswered questions to date is how simple cells first arose and how they gave rise to the start of what we call life today. Top-down synthetic biology strips down existing biological systems until they become as minimized as possible, which is straight-forward but presents limitations for the understanding of fundamental molecular regulation. On the other hand, bottom-up synthetic biology involves creating a de novo protocell, able to reproduce and evolve, entirely from non-living components. The creation of a synthetic protocell not only will generate crucial knowledge about the beginning of life: minimal, synthetic cells are also expected to revolutionize several biotechnological fields, such as biorefineries and smart drug engineering.

Building a synthetic cell, although still enormously challenging, is thought of as a rather achievable goal in the medium-long term since there are important advances in molecular biology techniques on a regular basis. Whether such a synthetic cell will be a crippled, minimal version of a mix of microorganisms or a powerful tool capable of mediating efficient bioconversion of matter will mainly depend, amongst others, on it’s designed metabolism: the design of tailored metabolisms is essential to provide synthetic cells with the biochemistry that will sustain synthetic life.

Techniques

During a BSc or MSc thesis, students will work with state-of-the-art techniques for molecular and synthetic biology in a highly stimulating environment. The range of possibilities includes (but is not limited to):

  • Extensive molecular cloning techniques
  • Metabolic operon design and engineering
  • Heterologous protein expression and purification
  • Genetic and metabolic engineering
  • In vitro enzymatic assays
  • Metabolomics

Contact

Thesis projects are available for enthusiastic BSc/MSc students interested in synthetic biology, biotechnology, molecular genetics, biochemistry and/or molecular microbiology. For more information, please feel free to contact me via e-mail at max.fingerbou@wur.nl.