In 2020, NSF’s Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences together with the Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transports Systems (CBET) in the Directorate for Engineering (ENG) and the Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES) in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) launched a new solicitation, Designing Synthetic Cells Beyond the Bounds of Evolution (Designer Cells) NSF 21-531. With this solicitation, NSF hoped to continue to support advances in building synthetic cells and leverage the success of programs like Understanding the Rules of Life: Building a Synthetic Cell. Projects submitted to the Designer Cells solicitation used synthetic biology to address at least one of the following research areas:
- identifying the minimal requirements for the processes of life;
- addressing fundamental questions in the evolution of life or exploring biological diversity beyond that which currently exists in nature;
- leveraging synthetic systems for innovative biotechnology applications.
The program is now accepting proposals for its third cohort. The due date for proposals for the third year is February 1, 2023. After this date, proposals will be accepted as core-program submissions to the Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster in MCB.
In its first and second cohorts, the program made a total of 20 awards. These awards explored several exciting themes, including building synthetic organelles, synthetic approaches to information storage and decoding, strategies for genome transplantation, creating cells with new tunable properties, and studying the dark matter of the epitranscriptome. A full list of the Designer Cells awards can be found here.
In the third year of the solicitation, Program Director Anthony Garza says that he “hopes to see proposals that continue to push to boundaries of what cells can do, either by adding in new functionality or minimizing cell components, while maintaining high function in synthetic cells.”