SYNTHCELLS: Approaches to the Bioengineering of Synthetic Minimal Cells

Duration: 42 months

Coordinator: University of RomaTre (Italy)

Contact Person:

Prof Pier Luigi Luisi
University of RomaTre
Dipartimento di Biologia
Viale G. Marconi 446
00146 Roma, Italy
e-mail: luisi[at]
tel: +39 06 55 17 63 29
fax: +39 06 55 17 63 21


  • University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • Université Claude bernard Lyon1 (France)
  • Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Germany)


Project Description:

The main objective of the research is the construction of vesicle-based biochemical reactors as “minimal cells”, defined as the cell constructs containing the minimal and sufficient number of components to be defined as alive, i.e. the concomitance of self-maintenance(metabolism), self-reproduction, and evolvability. Liposomes have been studied as the most likely precursors of biological cells, recent studies describe complex biochemical reactions inside liposomes, up to the expression of proteins (mostly green fluorescence protein). However many problems remain unsolved in the field of the minimal cell, and the most challenging objective of all, the construction of minimal cells capable of self reproduction, remain elusive. In this project, two types of cellular models are foreseen: (1) one in which the macromolecular components for information and catalysis are natural (i.e., non-synthetic) genes and enzymes. This is the “semi-synthetic minimal cell”, containing the minimal and sufficient number of genes/ enzymes to be defined as alive; (2) the approach in which the macromolecular components for catalysis and information are synthetic (PNAs, redox centres), and this is the “synthetic approach to the minimal cell”. This is a far-away target, and in the present proposal only three single modules are proposed, which correspond to three basic functions of the biological cell. The following benefits and advantages for the scientific community can be envisaged: 1-show that cellular life can be understood and realized in chemical terms, which would show that life is an emergent property may arising from non-living components; 2-set up a procedure for the bio-engineering of minimal cellular constructs, and the realization with synthetic components; 3-consider the possible biotechnological relevance of such cellular constructs, e.g., in molecular biology, in microcompartment bioreactors, in drug delivery.

(source: Cordis Nest Pathfinder projects 2003-2006)