We are building a cell, but we are not alone. Researchers around the world are actively working on projects with similar goals, albeit different approaches. There are groups working to build cells from the bottom-up, chemically synthesizing the constituent parts and combining them in such a way that my elucidate the fundamental physical mechanisms that result in a self-assembling cellular system. Other groups are working to construct a minimal genome by iteratively removing genes from a host genome until they have reached a subset of essential genes for growth and replication. The Build-A-Cell project combines the best parts of both approaches in an open and distributed way.
Top-down approach: Starting from entire existing genomes, genes are systematically removed and the genome is refactored until a cell with some minimal subset of components is created. The goal is to progressively obtain a deeper understanding of cells by characterizing essential components that remain. While this method could quickly provide an engineering platform, maximum potential knowledge gained is limited by a lack of first-principles design exploration.
Bottom-up approach: Starting from first principles, atoms or small groups of atoms (molecules) are put together in an intentional manner to create a protocell. The goal is to create a cellular recipe of well-characterized, essential components. While this method would likely lead to the most powerful understanding of cells, current technologies do not provide sufficient engineering capabilities and are slow to scale.
Build a cell approach: A top-down approach is taken to obtain a genome-less container while a bottom-up approach is taken to design lineage-agnostic genomes. Combining the two paradigms enables the design and understanding of genomes from first-principles without simultaneous concern for the remaining cellular components needed to instantiate the genome. Inspired by the Unix Philosophy, we aim to build an open and understandable platform for cell engineering.