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Dutch researchers join forces to build synthetic cell

09 May 2017

The Dutch research consortium BaSyC is taking on the challenge of building a synthetic biological cell. To that end, it has received a grant of almost € 19 million from the Gravitation programme of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The research partners themselves will fund the remaining six million of the more than € 25 million that the research programme will cost in total.

Prof. Bert Poolman , co-applicant of the grant, will coordinate the projects done by the five research groups of the University of Groningen. Their work takes up the one but biggest part of the BaSyC project. In total the consortium consists of researchers from five universities and AMOLF, one of the NWO research institutes, and is coordinated by the TU Delft University.

The cell is the basis of all organisms. Building a synthetic biological cell is one of science's greatest challenges of the 21st century. We already have extensive knowledge of the molecular building blocks that form the basis of life, but we do not yet understand how they work together to make life possible. The BaSyC consortium therefore aims to combine biomolecular building blocks to construct an autonomous, self-reproducing cell: a cell that can sustain itself, grow and reproduce.


They intend to build this synthetic cell from the bottom up, which is the most fundamental strategy for learning to understand a cell. They plan to derive the molecular building blocks and mechanisms for the synthetic cell from various existing rudimentary organisms. This means that the end product will function based on the principles of life as we know it, without mimicking any specific existing species.

Artist’s impression (Graham Johnson) of a synthetic cell
Artist’s impression (Graham Johnson) of a synthetic cell

Knowledge of the processes of life opens up unprecedented opportunities for a healthy and sustainable world in many areas, such as healthcare, agriculture, materials and energy. According to Dogterom, a better understanding of the molecular basis for cellular behaviour can contribute to the future development of targeted medication and personalised treatments for chronic diseases, such as cancer.

Potential applications include new screening methods for antibiotics and medicines, biosensors and solutions to antimicrobial resistance. Designing synthetic cellular systems will also enable humankind to produce new, smart and environmentally-friendly materials for high-tech industry, new biofuels and biodegradable polymers. It will also help facilitate the sustainable production of safe and healthy food.

With the NWO Gravitation programme, the government encourages outstanding research in the Netherlands. It is intended for scientific consortia that have the potential to rank among the world’s best.

The University of Groningen is involved in four out of six projects that have been granted by the NWO.

Read more

Millions in grants for UG researchers from Gravitation programme

Video animation ’BaSyC: Building a synthetic cell, bottom-up’ by Enrique Sahagún.

Last modified:22 June 2017 5.44 p.m.
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