The world-class symposium features several controversies long the lines of 1) Should we build a synthetic cell and 2) Aren’t we really doing that under another name anyway? Suzan Mazur reports at her blog, Oscillations:
The late Carl Woese, who was awarded the Leeuwenhoek Medal by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (1992), opposed the idea of making a synthetic cell, telling me in a 2012 interview weeks before he died that he thought the push for a synthetic cell was all about “Power” and scientists “thinking they’re God.”
The Dutch conference promo never actually defines life. It does, however, address why the country has decided to build a synthetic cell. It repeats the mantra that the initiative is all about trying to understand how life works, adding that part of the plan is to “gain insight” into what the conditions were that first enabled life to emerge on Earth, which may also be relevant elsewhere in the universe. Plus the Dutch, like most invested parties, have an interest in seeing spinoffs from the research.
Motive-wise, nothing really new here. What is new is the Dutch drive to get the job done. To show they mean business, they’ve invited some pretty serious scientists to the Delft discussions.
Some names and positions to watch for:
Of considerable note among the Dutch presenters is Cees Dekker, who in 2014 was decorated by King Willem-Alexander for his “pioneering work of great social relevance”: Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion. Cees Dekker is a physicist at Delft whose research interests include the biophysics of DNA and synthetic cells.
According to physicist Eberhard Bodenschatz, director of Max Panck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, Gottingen, who addressed the NSF synthetic cell meeting in May—the Dutch and Max Planck synthetic cell initiatives are very similar, except that the Dutch have now added a genome to their synthetic cell scheme and the Germans have not. The Germans want to see how far self-organization will take them.
“Extraordinary professor” Pieter Rein ten Wolde, from AMOLF (Dutch Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter), will also share highlights of his research at the Delft gathering. His Biochemical Network group at AMOLF is looking to “unravel the design principles” of biochemical networks through database analyses, theory and computer simulation.
Eugene Koonin is coming.
Koonin has demonstrated the ability to unite various tribes of evolutionary science and articulate a way forward. And he has set the record straight on natural selection, even if his co-author(s) may be stuck in selfish Dawkins-speak. Suzan Mazur, “Who’s Who at the Dutch Synthetic Cell Symposium” at Oscillations
Mazur hopes they’ll live-stream the conference.
It would be interesting if some serious predictions or wagers emerged, so that they can be tested years later. See this wager, for example: At New Scientist: The neuroscientists’ bet that a signature of human consciousness will be found in the brain has only five years to go… No one really loses if they discover that they might be on the wrong track in terms of what they are trying to do.
See also: The minimal cell: How is research coming on a simple, self-replicating “artificial” cell?
Suzan Mazur on mechanobiology, the next level of understanding of the cell
Cells are chock full of information systems, not just DNA
Origin of life: What we do and don’t know about the origin of life.