Capturing complex and emergent properties in molecular biology

Meet NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering – a paradigm shift focusing on molecular factories, cellular systems and the improvement of health.

The National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs) are an established federal funding instrument of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) for top-level research in Switzerland. NCCRs are long-term research projects on themes of strategic importance to Switzerland as a location for research and innovation. They stand for excellent and internationally recognised research of the highest quality with a particular emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches, for knowledge and technology transfer, and for promoting equal opportunities and the careers of young researchers.

Drawing on close to 100 researchers and support personnel, the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering (MSE) is about interdisciplinary research, focusing on systems chemistry, systems biology and synthetic biology for the creation of chemical and biological modules integrated into molecular factories and cellular systems. Currently, three work packages combine research projects and unite academic and industrial support. The overall aim of NCCR MSE is to create molecular factories and cellular systems for the production of high added-value chemicals and develop new applications in medical diagnostics, therapy and treatment, which has the potential of leading to a long-term paradigm shift in molecular sciences and a new structure of the Swiss research landscape.

The Innovation Platform speaks to NCCR MSEs scientific officer Aleksander Benjak about the importance of engineering cellular systems for medical treatments.

To start us off, can you give us a brief introduction to what molecular systems engineering is, and what it involves?

Molecular systems engineering (MSE) attempts to capture the complexity and emergent properties prevalent in biology. The uniqueness of this initiative relies on the combination of both chemical- and biological modules. In this approach, complex dynamic phenomena emerge as the result of the integration of molecular modules (molecular- or biological prosthetics) designed to interact in a programmed way with their complex environment. In this manner, it should be possible to create molecular factories and cellular systems whose properties are more than the sum of the attributes of the individual modules. These new system-level properties emerge through the interactions of chemical- and biological networks assembled from the individual modules.

What are some of the latest research projects you are working on?

Projects within the NCCR MSE range from supramolecular and systems chemistry for the top-down fabrication of (bio-inspired) molecular systems and factories, to systems and synthetic biology for the engineering of cellular systems for medical treatment and health control. Some of the latest research projects include the nanofabrication of a silicon-based, solid-state platform for innovative catalytic systems that mimic spatially controlled biochemical processes, the creation of functional in vivo nanoreactors based on amphiphilic ABC triblock copolymers and the development of cellular systems for the reprogramming of individual cells and rational design of signalling and cellular circuits for disease treatments and metabolic disorder therapies.

In the long run, the development of molecular and cellular systems for clinical applications will inevitably raise anxieties and ethical challenges within our society. Therefore, NCCR MSE is putting a lot of emphasis in addressing the ethical aspects of its research, with the aim of bringing together stakeholders from the scientific, medical, ethical, political, cultural and religious world across generations to define existing and future challenges in engineering life and help create a framework for true ethical discourse to take place. To this end, NCCR MSE and the Pontifical Academy for Life are organising the 1st International Conference Ethics of Engineering life to be held in Rome, Italy from 16 – 18 November 2020.

Additionally, NCCR MSE is actively engaged in science communication, with a particular focus on the connection between science and art through its “Art of Molecule” project, where art is used to communicate the complex science of molecular systems engineering to the wide public.

What role does molecular systems engineering play in the development for biomaterials?

NCCR MSE is not focused on the development of biomaterials, but mainly uses the properties of biocompatible materials, such as triblock copolymers, to develop functionalised carriers, artificial organelles or nanoreactors that can be used to deliver and apply next-generation medical treatments and therapies.

Aleksander Benjak
Scientific officer
Molecular Systems Engineering
National Centre of Competence in Research
Swiss National Science Foundation

Please note, this article will also appear in the first edition of our new quarterly publication.

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