Kate Adamala and the Build-a-Cell consortium look to synthetic biology for insight into the origins of life and a source for vital raw materials.
By Bernard Cook III
Your phone, your food, and the fuel that powers your car all depend on oil-derived petrochemicals. But experts anticipate oil reserves will run dry as early as 2070, forcing industries dependent on petrochemicals to look for alternatives that would fundamentally change the way they do business–and the way we live.
But scientists like Kate Adamala (BTI/Genetics, Cell Biology and Development) see another path forward. They envision a world where oil reserves disappear but one where we’ll still be able to meet our need for petrochemicals. Their solution? Create more life.
Adamala, a chemical engineer by training, is working to build living organisms from nonliving chemical components. These “synthetic cells” can help scientists explore the origin of life, accelerate drug discovery, or provide a renewable source of resources, like petrochemicals.
At its core, a synthetic cell is an organism that exhibits lifelike qualities. Much like a car, which is a collection of metal parts until arranged in the right way, cells are chemical bundles organized in a particular manner. Adamala constructs synthetic cells in her lab by encapsulating nucleic acids, amino acids, and ribosomes (the building blocks of cellular life) within a protective lipid coating. This method, known as the “bottom-up” approach, offers a key advantage: complete control over the cell’s components.
Natural cells can also be engineered to perform specific functions, but they’re resistant to change, and coaxing them into producing large quantities of desirable chemicals comes at a cost. When scientists engineer cells to create petrochemicals, for example, the build-up of those chemicals can damage the cell. “No self-respecting cell will make those chemicals because it’s toxic to them.”
Synthetic cells, however, are a blank slate. “Because we make them from scratch, they don’t have the baggage of 4 billion years of evolution,” Adamala remarks. They can be manufactured to do what scientists want them to do (like churning out petrochemicals). But, even with this level of control, there are still compromises. Adamala likens this to canine domestication. “I want my dog to sit on my lap and keep me warm in the winter. And he does that, but he cannot go out and hunt … so that’s the trade-off we made.”
Before synthetic cells can support a robust biomanufacturing economy, scientists like Adamala also need to resolve the physics of how cells self-replicate. To date, researchers have yet to determine how to make synthetic cells reproduce on their own–a crucial step toward using these organisms as in mini, living biofactories.
Like many scientists, Adamala grew up watching science fiction films and was fascinated by the search for life beyond earth. She earned her Ph.D. in astrobiology, but synthetic biology allowed her to explore her passion while producing tangible benefits for society. “The synthetic cell engineering field presented itself as everything I always wanted. It has connections to origins and astrobiology, so I can still say I’m looking for life on Mars! But it’s also incredibly applicable. It could solve some of the biggest problems our economy is facing now.”
Adamala isn’t the only scientist excited about this approach to cell engineering. The Build-a-Cell consortium, co-founded and led by Adamala, intends to construct a network of scientists sharing ideas, data, success stories, and failures–not unlike open-source software platforms that depend on shared knowledge to drive innovation. Adamala is hopeful that by uniting researchers via Build-a-Cell, they’ll get there sooner rather than later.
Once we unlock their potential, synthetic cells could produce fuel for our cars, fibers for clothing, and fertilizers to increase crop yields. They may also accelerate biomedical discovery or offer a glimpse into the life of our earliest ancestors. One day, they may even enable us to survive on Mars.