While attending SEED 2019, I was lucky enough to sit down with the Kate Adamala and Richard Murray, who along with Drew Endy, are running Build-a-Cell – the collaborative platform to bring together groups interested life 2.0. They were kind enough to take the time to discuss the work with me over a cup of conference coffee.
Ross: So let’s start, appropriately, with the basics. What is Build-a-Cell and how long has it been running for?
Richard: So the website (buildacell.io) existed before we physically met but I’d put the beginnings at around 2016 when 40 to 50 people were brought together by Drew and I to discuss how you would go about building a cell, the routes to get there and ways to collaborate. Everyone brings their own interests to the endeavour, whether that’s the physical containers of the cell, the genes required to run one, etc. There’s a good mix of philosophical approaches – people working from a first principles ‘bottom up’ approach, what do you have to put together to get a viable cells, and those working from a ‘top down’ approach that takes a living cell and sees what you can strip out and keep it functioning.
Kate: We’ve also been keen to engage with biosecurity and biosafety concerns from the very beginning. These systems are fragile but we want to keep ahead of the curve on public perception of these systems.
Ross: And what is Build-a-Cell like now?
Richard: Membership is about 90 people and our strategy is to give labs the tools to work on a and in a framework to accomplish their goals. The commercial interest is limited due to lack of direct application but there is a strong basic science interest, particularly from people interested in the origin of life and we have a strong systems biology subcommunity
Kate: And of course the overlap with space biology relating to the origins of life.
Ross: I guess if the only way to build a cell is like how life originally did it, that tells you something important and if there are multiple ways to build cells, that tells you something equally important.
Richard: And from a synthetic biology point of view, there are interests in manufacturing applications. The work here is on the border of cell-free systems, for example when you don’t want a whole cell but need ‘cell-lite’ systems.
Ross: And where do you see Build-a-Cell in ten years time?
Richard: Well the members fall into two camps, understanding life versus building machines. I’m in the latter. So for me, in ten years we’d have a ‘cell’. Something on the level of prokaryotic organisation, though some groups are working on eukaryotic-style localisation of reactions. This cell would be open source and the compatibilities between different systems worked out. So the container you want to use would be compatible with the genes running the system, the metabolic pathways you’re interested in, etc. We might find out that this ‘cell’ doesn’t look very much look like what we consider a cell to be at all. One of the interesting areas of application would be the interface between the living and the synthetic, being used to control bioreactors or biocomputing.