Synthetic and Artificial Cells Workshop

May (13) 14-15, 2018 | The Westin Alexandria in Alexandria, Virginia

About the Workshop
The cell is the building block of all life, and chemistry only becomes alive when biological molecules are put together to form cells. For the past several decades, work in cell biology has mostly pursued a reductionist agenda, focused largely on determining which molecular components are responsible for a given set of activities or structures. As a result of this reductionist strategy, tremendous progress in enumerating the complete “parts list” of cells, and in assigning various molecular pathways to the different behaviors and structures of cells. But how will we know whether our knowledge of how all these molecular parts work together is sufficient to understanding the cell? If there are gaps in our knowledge, how would we know where those gaps lie?

The Italian philospher Giambattista Vico provided a strategy for testing knowledge in the form of his statement “Verum esse ipsum factum “, meaning, the true is in the made. This sentiment has more recently been repeated by Richard Feynman, who remarked “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. By the same token, if we really understand a cell, we should be able to build one. Success would mean that we do in fact understand how cells work. But failure would be extremely valuable as well, because it would allow us to identify gaps in knowledge of cell biology, gaps that could then be the focus of future research. Indeed, we would argue that one way to define the most critical questions in cell biology is in light of the question of building synthetic cells. Wherever a gap exists in our knowledge that prevents us from building a cell, that gap defines a research question with maximal scope for innovation and novelty.

Tentative List of Discussion Topics

  • What is the minimum set of activities that would define a “function” cell (cell division, motility, generation of energy, ability to sense and respond)?
  • How do individual components of a cell (organelles, membraneless compartments) self organize in the cellular milieu?
  • What functions are necessary in the membrane in order to have a functioning cell, and which ones can we build already?
  • What biophysical mechanisms allow a cell to perform robust function in the presence of large molecular fluctuation i.e. noise?
  • What can be prototyped in a cell free system to demonstrate cell function?
  • What is the minimum set of genes, proteins, organelles, small molecules necessary for a cell to function?

Workshop Organizers
Clyde Hutchison, J. Craig Venter Institute
Herbert Levine, Rice University
Zaida Luthey-Schulten, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Wallace Marshall, University of California, San Francisco