MSU Professor Leads Scientists to Create a Cell Without Lipids

Cheryl Kerfeld, Michigan State University’s Hannah Distinguished Professor in the MSU Plant Research Laboratory and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, will lead a group of five scientists from a variety of disciplines to build a cell without lipids.
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Scientists from a variety of disciplines are working on building a synthetic cell without lipids. // Image courtesy of Michigan State University

Cheryl Kerfeld, Michigan State University’s Hannah Distinguished Professor in the MSU Plant Research Laboratory and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, will lead a group of five scientists from a variety of disciplines to build a cell without lipids.

This project is the result of a Washington D.C. think tank, which was facilitated by the National Science Foundation.

“We are going to take building blocks from different scientific disciplines that would never naturally get together — physics, biology, and materials chemistry — to build a functional, multi-compartmental, and fat-free cell, or ‘ProteoCell,’” says Kerfeld. “Outside of the Ideas Lab context, we never would have self-assembled into a team, and it never would have occurred to me to build a cell without lipids.”

Kerfeld will fund this project with a National Science Foundation $3.4 million Rules of Life grant. With this grant, the foundation aims to invest in the development of two key areas of science and engineering research that include building a synthetic cell and epigenetics, or the study of biological mechanisms that decide whether genes will be expressed in an organism. The foundation is investing a total of $36 million in its Understanding the Rules of Life program.

In addition, this project could aid in the production of biomaterials and biofuels in the United States and study the societal perceptions of a synthetic cell.

Kerfeld’s Rules of Life team members include: Christine Keating, professor of chemistry from Penn State University; Millie Sullivan, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering from the University of Delaware; Vincent Noireaux, professor of physics from the University of Minnesota; Giovanna Ghirlanda, professor of chemistry from Arizona State University; and Barbara Harthorn, professor of anthropology from the University of California Santa Barbara.

“The NSF’s Rules of Life is one of the grand challenges of biology, and MSU should be proud that we are leading an elite group of high caliber researchers and faculty able to address these questions,” says Kerfeld.

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