To jump-start the design and engineering of synthetic cells, the National Science Foundation has awarded an 800k grant to researchers at Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology. NSF’s Design and Engineering of Synthetic Cells and Cell Components program (DESYN-C3) helps to address one of NSF’s 10 BIG Ideas, “
Understanding the Rules of Life.” Neha Kamat (PI, BME), Danielle Tullman-Ercek (Co-PI, CBE), and Neda Bagheri (Co-PI, CBE) along with their colleagues in the Center of Synthetic Biology, will investigate how compartmentalization strategies can be used to make complex biological molecules without requiring biological cells. Their project is titled “RAISE: DESYN-C
3: A Platform for Modular Pseudo-Organelles for Compartmentalization and Control of Pseudo-Cell Processes.”

The goal of the proposed work will be to improve biological synthesis in cell-free environments by integrating compartmentalization, controlled transport, and cell-free expression systems to control when and where biomolecule reactions take place and expand the environments in which such systems can be employed. Recent advances in the field of synthetic biology and material science have made advances on individual aspects of this goal, yet bringing these parts together has remained a challenge. The team’s approach will be to design artificial organelles that can perform tasks, similar to cells, like energy production, metabolism, or transport and to assemble these organelles in a modular way to construct an artificial cell. Kamat and Tullman-Ercek will bring together their labs’ unique approaches to designing nanoscale-compartments and Bagheri’s computational techniques to build and optimize an artificial cell. The center’s other faculty members will provide critical, interdisciplinary expertise in biological sensing, metabolic regulation, and cell-free systems.

The grant provides a new mechanism to bridge the interdisciplinary skills of faculty across the Center for Synthetic Biology toward the emerging field of synthetic cell engineering. Due to its interdisciplinary and transformative nature, this project is jointly funded by the NSF’s CBET, CMMI, ENG, CHE, DMR, and MPS divisions. The Center’s other faculty who will also contribute to this project include Michael Jewett, Joshua Leonard, Julius Lucks, Milan Mrksich, Arthur Prindle and Keith Tyo.


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