2017 Future Symposium on Building a Synthetic Cell

Event date(s): 
Location: Ringberg Castle, Germany

A three-day Future Symposium about the challenges and opportunities of building a synthetic cell

The symposium brought together top researchers in the synthetic cell field, as well as politicians, ethicists and representatives of funding bodies, scientific academies, and industry, paving the way for an even more widely supported European effort to build a living cell from lifeless molecular components using a bottom-up approach.

During the symposium, three Nobel Laureates declared their enthusiasm and support for the collaborative project: Jean-Marie Lehn, Jack Szostak, and Ada Yonath. For a comprehensive list of attendees of the Future Symposium, please click here.

The symposium was initiated and organized by scientists from the University of Oxford, UK (Prof. Hagan Bayley), the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Germany (Prof. Petra Schwille), and the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft, the Netherlands (Profs. Cees Dekker and Marileen Dogterom).

Aim of the symposium

This forward-looking symposium aimed at exploring the scientific challenges, technological opportunities, and societal impact of one of the grand fundamental challenges of modern science – building a synthetic cell. It consisted of a scientific workshop including a 1-day consultation with high-level policymakers, science academies and EC commission representatives.

The meeting assembled Europe’s top scientists, including Nobel Prize Laureates, to explore one of the most exciting outstanding challenges in the life sciences: to build a functioning synthetic cell from individual molecular components. This endeavour will open up a new scientific field, uncover the foundational constituent elements of living systems, and advance entirely new application areas in biotechnology and health.

A major research effort on synthetic cells would provide a unique opportunity to position Europe as a world leader in synthetic biology. Discussions have been initiated to start a European flagship on the development of synthetic cells, see also our vision document. Indeed, this is a flagship-worthy challenge. Together with leading science policymakers, we discussed the opportunities for Europe to take a lead in this new interdisciplinary area of science.


Wednesday 12 July
MorningArrival to MPIB, light snacks and buffet lunch
12:00Departure with bus to Castle
14:20Welcome and introduction to the scope of the workshop (Petra Schwille, Cees Dekker, Marileen Dogterom and Hagan Bayley)

Constructing life top-down and bottom-up (chair Cees Dekker)

14:25Drew Endy (Stanford University) – Synthetic biology
14:50John Glass (J. Craig Venter Institute) – Design, synthesis and analysis of a synthetic minimal bacterial cell
15:15Petra Schwille (MPI for Biochemistry) – How simple could life be?
15:40Coffee break

Large-scale Minimal Cell Initiatives in Europe (chair Petra Schwille)

16:00Eberhard Bodenschatz (Max Planck Society) – The Max Planck wide network MaxSynBio
16:20Marileen Dogterom (Delft University of Technology) – The Dutch network BaSyC
16:40Dek Woolfson (University of Bristol) – The BrisSynBio initiative
17:00Break, check-in

Origins of life and astrobiology (chair Philipp Holliger)

17:30Pascale Ehrenfreund (German Aerospace Center DLR) – Tracing the key steps in the origin of life: astrobiology and synthetic cells
17:55John Sutherland (Medical Research Council) – The origin of life and synthetic biology
18:15Mary Voytek (NASA) – Synthetic Biology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth
Thursday 13 July

What to learn from Synthetic Cells? (chair Gijsje Koenderink)

8:30Cees Dekker (Delft University of Technology) – Towards synthetic cell division
8:50Joachim Spatz (MPI for Medical Research) – Sequential bottom-up assembly of synthetic cells

Nobel Laureate Forum 1: Challenges and perspectives (chair Marileen Dogterom)

9:10Jack Szostak (Harvard University) – Why make synthetic cells?
9:40Ada Yonath (Weizmann Institute) – An unreplaceable prebiotic apparatus is functioning in every living cell
10:10Coffee break

Perspective of Private Agencies on Synthetic Biology (chair Hagan Bayley)

10:40Pavel Dutow (VW Foundation) –  Life? – A fresh scientific approach to the basic principles of life
10:55Julian Huppert (Cambridge) –  How might a moderately technically literate policy maker think about a synthetic cell?
11:10Christopher Martin (Kavli Foundation) – Launching the International Brain Initiative: A Case Study

National Funding Agencies and Politics Forum: A larger view on Synthetic Biology (chair Petra Schwille)

11:25Panel discussion with Marjolein Robijn (NWO), Alfred Pühler (Leopoldina), Anke
Becker (DFG) and Patrick Rose (ONR)
12:30Lunch Break

Research Policy and Funding in the EU: Keynote talks by EU directorates (chair Cees Dekker)

 14.00Aymard de Touzalin (European Commission) –  Addressing grand S&T challenges: state of play of FET research in H2020
14.30Philippe Cupers (European Commission) – European health research: challenges and priorities
15:00Coffee break

Nobel Laureate Forum 2: Challenges and perspectives (chair Erwin Frey)

15:30John Walker (Cambridge University) – participation to be confirmed
16:00Jean-Marie Lehn (Université de Strasbourg) – From supramolecular chemistry towards adaptive chemistry

Current and future applications of synthetic cell research (chair Wilhelm Huck)

17:00Tobias Erb (MPI for Terrestrial Microbiology Marburg) –  Carbon dioxide fixation with synthetic cells
17:20Hagan Bayley (University of Oxford) – Synthetic tissues from printed droplet networks
17:40Roel Bovenberg (DSM/University of Groningen) –  Synthetic biology from an industrial perspective
18:00Plenary discussion
19:00Bavarian dinner with original style live music
Friday 14 July

Fundamental problems and technical challenges (chair Joachim Spatz)

8:30Bert Poolman (University of Groningen) –  A synthetic metabolic network for cell volume regulation
8:50Daniel Müller (ETH Zürich) –  Engineering molecular factories and cellular systems towards health control
9:10Damien Baigl (Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris) – Challenges with and in synthetic cells: a soft matter perspective
9:30Sheref Mansy (University of Trento/CIBIO) – Fundamental problems and technical challenges to the construction of synthetic cells
9:50Coffee break, checkout

Philosophical, societal and ethical aspects and challenges (chair Bert Poolman)

10:30Peter Millican (University of Oxford) – Title TBA
11:05Peter Dabrock  (University of Erlangen-Nuremberg/German Ethics Council) –  In science we trust!?! SB and its challenges at the interface of science and society

Wrap-up, summary and next steps

11:30Plenary discussion with brief observations by Schwille, Dekker and Bayley
12:15Lunch and departure

Supported by:

Practical information


The symposium was by invitation only, with about 45 selected participants: Europe’s leading scientists, Nobel prize laureates, science policymakers, presidents Royal Societies, and EC commission representatives. The list of invitees can be found here.


Ringberg Castle, Germany


July 12-14, 2017
July 13 is focused on the perspective of European policymakers.

Initiators and organizing committee

Prof. Hagan Bayley, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
E: hagan.bayley@chem.ox.ac.uk

Prof. Cees Dekker, Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, TU Delft, Netherlands
E: c.dekker@tudelft.nl

Prof. Marileen Dogterom, Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, TU Delft, Netherlands
E: m.dogterom@tudelft.nl

Prof. Petra Schwille, Max-Planck Institute Biochemistry, Martinsried, Germany
E: schwille@biochem.mpg.de

Symposium whitepaper

The symposium whitepaper ‘The Ultimate Challenge of Synthetic Biology’ can be found here.


Damien BaiglEcole Normale Supérieure Paris
Hagan BayleyUniversity of Oxford
Anke BeckerPhilipps-University Marburg
Eberhard BodenschatzMax Planck Society
Roel BovenbergDSM
Philippe CupersEuropean Commission
Peter DabrockUniversity of Erlangen
Christophe DanelonDelft University of Technology
Cees DekkerDelft University of Technology
Marileen DogteromDelft University of Technology
Pavel DutowVolkswagen Foundation
Pascale EhrenfreundGerman Aerospace Center
Drew EndyStanford University
Tobias ErbMax Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology Marburg
Erwin FreyLudwig-Maximillians Universität München
John GlassCraig Venter Institute
Philipp HolligerMRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Cambridge
Wilhelm HuckRadboud University
Julian HuppertJesus College Intellectual Forum Cambridge
Gijsje KoenderinkFOM institute AMOLF Amsterdam
Jean-Marie LehnUniversité de Strasbourg (Nobel Prize 1987)
Sheref MansyUniversity of Trento
Christopher MartinThe Kavli Foundation
Peter MillicanUniversity of Oxford
Daniel MüllerETH Zürich D-BSSE Basel
Bert PoolmanUniversity of Groningen
Alfred PühlerGerman Academy of Sciences Leopoldina
Mariolein RobijnNetherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
Patrick RoseOffice of Naval Research
Petra SchwilleMax Planck Institute of Biochemistry Martinsried
Joachim SpatzMax Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems Stüttgart
John SutherlandMRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology Cambridge
Jack SzostakHarvard University (Nobel Prize 2009)
Aymard de TouzalinEuropean Commission
Mary VoytekNASA Astrobiology Program
Sir John WalkerCambridge University (Nobel Prize 1997) – participation to be confirmed
Dek WoolfsonUniversity of Bristol
Ada YonathWeizmann Institute (Nobel Prize 2009)

Back to top