Research

Meet the community – Laura Heinen

With her Systems Materials group, Laura Heinen, a new independent group leader in Aachen, Germany, seeks to understand what it takes to bring matter to life and aims to create life-like properties in materials. She told us more about her work, what guides her line of research and her expectations for the European Synthetic Cell Initiative.

Creating life-like properties in materials

Chemist by training, Laura is interested in how pure chemical reactions and the self-assembly of molecules transition into the formation of complex living systems.

“There is so much going on at the molecular level that is not visible to our human eyes and senses, but which can explain our macroscopic world.”

She recently formed her own research group at the DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials in Aachen, Germany.

“With my group, we are looking to create soft matter material systems that can harness, store, convert and dissipate energy, simply put, synthetic systems with their own artificial metabolism. I believe that these capabilities are essential for making the transition from non-living matter to living matter. Living systems are traversed by a continuous flow of energy and matter, which makes them different from non-living systems.”

Using synthetic cells as building blocks

In her laboratory, she equips artificial vesicles with sustained metabolic reactions that can fuel and maintain vital processes and functions of cells. Laura is primarily looking to build artificial cells, not to mimic real cells in every detail, but rather to build functional synthetic cell factories and make active materials from them.

“Artificial cells serve as models. They help us to understand which individual principles can facilitate certain life-like functions, how the different components engage with each other, which in turn helps us to make progress in the design of life-like materials.”

Laura would also like to explore the interactions between synthetic cells and living cells, in particular, the possibility of having a shared metabolism that would ensure a sustained feeding and exchange of energy between synthetic and living cells.

Deepening her understanding of life without neglecting potential applications

The main driving force behind Laura’s work is to understand how life works, “how the basic chemical principles are integrated to form a living system”. But she also believes that synthetic cell research will provide valuable components for future technologies.

“Synthetic cells are more complex and smarter than simple carriers. They can have a major impact on boosting personalised therapeutics, biotechnology applications and biomedical materials that can better interact with real cells.”

Her expectations regarding the role of the European Synthetic Cell Initiative

We asked Laura how the European Synthetic Cell Initiative (SynCellEU) could help bridge the gap between research and technology. Firstly, she believes that the SynCellEU community needs to communicate clearly, both to potential stakeholders and to the general public, what synthetic cell technology can deliver in the future and on what timescales.

“The initiative also has a central role to play in helping to bring together people such as scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and laymen. It should serve as a collective point of contact to facilitate and encourage such encounters.”

She also thinks that collaboration is crucial at this stage of synthetic cell research and that SynCellEU could facilitate cross-border research.

“We already have fairly advanced modules and sub-systems that reproduce a function or part of a function of living cells, for example, the engineering of a minimal genome, cell division, energy regeneration, etc. But the integration of these modules is lagging behind and will be a challenge.”

“I really like the Build-a-Cell community, with its open-mindedness, regular and easy-to-access workshops. I would like to see more workshops like this within the SynCellEU community, where the focus is on how to collaborate and share results between research groups. I think this is a good way of getting students, PhD students and postdocs more closely involved and stimulating bottom-up collaboration.”

For more information about Laura

Research Group Heinen – Systems Materials

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