“We received a grant of €19M from the Netherlands Science Foundation last summer for our synthetic cell development project. The award went to 15 working groups—15 groups working in this area is substantial. We will probably appoint 30-80 PhD students. But some of our labs also have national grants and so the 15 groups could each include 10 to 20 researchers.
The 15 PIs have already individually been working on aspects of synthetic cell development. But for the first time there is proper funding for tackling larger scale problems.”—University of Groningen biochemist Bert Poolman, in conversation with me in 2017
The Netherlands is a small country of 17 million people. With a GDP of roughly $850B, it is 18th in world economies. Not counting the narco economy, that is—estimated at $3.4B—money Dutch police report is being laundered in real estate, travel, hospitality and other industries. Nevertheless, it is a model state with a GDP per capita of $50,000, 5% living below poverty and with AAA Fitch and S&P ratings. A year or so ago the Dutch government, responding to public interest in origins of life, allocated €2.5M ($2.9M) to establish an Origins of Life Center and €19M ($22M) for a synthetic cell development program.
Scientists in the Netherlands have now tapped some of the €19M to organize the country’s “1st International Symposium on Building a Synthetic Cell.” The bottom-up meeting takes place August 28-29 at Delft University of Technology, where 32 speakers take the stage to present their perspectives. Half are Dutch, half from assorted countries. Two philosophers are in the mix, two chivalrous knights, and lots of fresh faces.
The symposium’s chair is Marileen Dogterom, a Delft University biophysicist who also chairs Delft’s bionanoscience department besides running the Dogterom lab, which looks at cytoskeleton “assembly, force generation and organization.” Dogterom is a professor at Leiden Institute of Physics as well. She is a winner of the 2018 Spinoza Prize, the Netherlands’ highest scientific award (€2.5M).
‘The cytoskeleton is a dynamic polymer system, it is constantly changing shape. So it is different than for example a human skeleton. The microtubules (tubular proteins that form the cytoskeleton, ed.) generate forces by growing and shrinking. The same microtubules also help with cell polarization, making a cell’s front look different from its back. A cell needs this for example to be able to walk. So the cytoskeleton also has to do with the spatial organization of the cell.”
It’s interesting that the conference is taking place at Delft, which is also home to a neutron and positron research center. Delft is part of LENS (League of Advanced European Neutron Sources), a consortium of countries using neutron scattering to probe and measure matter, including inside living cells—with the most sophisticated facility in Sweden (46% complete).
But the questions: Why build a synthetic cell? and What is life? continue to reverberate.