Research

Meet the community – Marten Exterkate

Since 2022, Marten Exterkate has headed the “Membrane Biogenesis and Lipidomics” research group at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHU) in Germany. He and his team are working on lipid membranes, the bilayer that forms the outer boundary of a living cell. Using his expertise in lipid biosynthesis, synthetic membrane growth and LC-MS lipidomics, the young group leader is seeking to understand how cells reproduce and, in particular, how the various processes involved in membrane self-replication work together.

Membrane growth, an essential aspect of continuous cell division

A biochemist by training, Marten has been working in the field of synthetic cell (SynCell) research, also known as bottom-up synthetic biology, since his PhD and postdoc at the University of Groningen, when he began working on the growth of lipid membranes for the Dutch BaSyC research programme.

“One of the main characteristics of a living cell is its ability to self-replicate, in other words, its capacity to divide into two identical cells of the same size as their mother cell. To make this a sustainable cycle, the cell membrane must not only divide but also expand continuously.”

At Groningen, under the supervision of Arnold Driessen, Marten succeeded in growing the membrane of large unilamellar vesicles (LUVs) by adding newly synthesised phospholipids, the main components of bacterial membranes. As the building blocks were supplied from the outside, the lipids were inserted into the outer layer of the vesicle membrane. Marten is now continuing his research into lipid membranes with his own group in Düsseldorf. For him, these membranes represent the best candidate for the construction of synthetic cells.

“Biological membranes are made of lipids and have essential proteins that cannot function without the presence of these lipids,” he explained. “Together with Arnold, we showed that synthetic membranes also need to contain a variety of lipids so that the proteins they contain can do their job properly.

Make the lipid membrane growth system compatible with other cellular processes

With his group, Marten is exploring new leads to provide the SynCell community with a membrane growth module that can support other essential cellular processes.

“At the moment, we are able to grow the membrane from the outside of the vesicles. Ideally, to build synthetic cells and understand the processes of life, we would like to grow the membrane from the inside, as living cells do. This is much more complex because the numerous components of the membrane growth system need to be encapsulated in a single vesicle. Their numbers will increase still further as we are currently increasing the variety of lipids we can synthesise.”

But the constraints don’t stop there. “All synthetic enzymatic reactions generate leftovers, by-products that have to be recycled or degraded because they can block other reactions. Recyclability and closed systems are areas that I am currently studying with Bert Poolman at the University of Groningen.”

Marten is studying further the adaptation of membranes to environmental stresses and the relationship between division and growth: how they work together to ensure that division does not occur before growth, and that cell growth stops at the right size.

Integration, a major step in advancing synthetic cell research

Living cells are complex. So much so that research teams generally work on a single process (division, growth, communication) or sub-process. The construction of synthetic cells challenges our current understanding of cellular life. It will force researchers to combine cellular processes, also referred to as modules, to overcome the current technical difficulties.

“How do we get all the components we need inside these synthetic cells? And how do we make the different modules work together? These are the main difficulties we need to solve together,” said Marten.

“We need to focus more on the compatibility of our modules with others. We should develop systems that are as closed as possible and use a simplistic, circular approach to limit the number of by-products and therefore their influence on other processes.”

This means working more closely together and developing more collaborations. The European Synthetic Cell Initiative (SynCellEU) strives to facilitate these collaborations, and over the years has brought together a vast community of researchers, companies and institutions.

 “The SynCellEU community is great for developing a network. I can easily search for members of the community and see what they are working on, which is very inspiring and helps to build relationships. I hope the initiative will offer young group leaders more opportunities to collaborate and apply for funding jointly with established researchers. For a junior group leader like myself, this is really important in the early career phase.”

For more information about Marten

  • Recent publications:
  1. Growing Membranes In Vitro by Continuous Phospholipid Biosynthesis from Free Fatty Acids
    Marten Exterkate, Antonella Caforio, Marc C. A. Stuart, and Arnold J. M. Driessen
    ACS Synthetic Biology 2018 7 (1), 153-165
  2. Synthetic Minimal Cell: Self-Reproduction of the Boundary Layer
    Marten Exterkate and Arnold J. M. Driessen
    ACS Omega 2019 4 (3), 5293-5303
  3. Two distinct anionic phospholipid-dependent events involved in SecA-mediated protein translocation
    Sabrina Koch, Marten Exterkate, Cesar A. López, Megha Patro, Siewert J. Marrink, Arnold J.M. Driessen
    Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Biomembranes, Volume 1861, Issue 11, 2019, 183035

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