Kate Adamala is a biochemist building synthetic cells at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences. Her research aims at understanding chemical principles of biology, using artificial cells to create new tools for bioengineering, drug development, and basic research. The interests of her lab span questions from the origin and earliest evolution of life, using synthetic biology to colonize space, to the future of biotechnology and medicine.
She received a MSc in chemistry from the University of Warsaw, Poland, studying synthetic organic chemistry. In grad school, she worked with professor Pier Luigi Luisi from University Roma Tre and Jack Szostak from Harvard University. She studied RNA biophysics, small peptide catalysis and liposome dynamics, in an effort to build a chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution. Kate’s postdoctoral work in Ed Boyden’s Synthetic Neurobiology group at MIT focused on developing novel methods for multiplex control and readout of mammalian cells. Her full first name spells Katarzyna; she goes by Kate for the benefit of friends speaking less consonant-enriched languages.
First we discuss Kate’s synthetic cells and whether or not they are living. These are phospholipid liposomes which encapsulate a full central dogma (transcription, translation). Synthetic cells are more complex than biochemical experiments, but at the moment, Kate does not consider her synthetic cells living. These cells are not self replicating, currently requiring a graduate-assisted replication. We then have an extended discussion about the ribosome, why it’s the biggest hurdle to achieving true self replication, and why it kind of sucks as a catalyst!
Next, we move on to how synthetic cells can be used to aid in the research of brain computer interfaces (BCI). Kate’s vision is that, because synthetic cells can be so robustly controlled, they represent a form of “programmable goo” which would interface much more robustly with our brains than traditional silicon. She envisions the role of synthetic cells as being used as a less injurious interface for BCIs, which currently cause significant scarring to the brain.
Finally, we talk about one of the most interesting topics covered on the molpigs podcast: space exploration! Kate discusses how synthetic cells, being so programmable, might be ideal devices for Martian terraforming. By engineering poly-extremophiles (extremophiles which are robust to many extreme conditions, organisms which do not exist on Earth) specific to the environment of Mars, it may be possible to design a metabolism capable to transforming Martian soil into something fertile. Additionally, synthetic cells might be used as on-board biochemical printers on long space missions. Their programmable metabolism may enable us to produce any biomolecule, such as medicines on demand.
Find more information at the episode page here: