About Molecular Systems Engineering

Molecular Systems Engineering is a National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and headed by the University of Basel and ETH Zürich. This particular NCCR combines the disciplines chemistry, biology, physics with bioinformatic and engineering. The scientific aim is to synthesise, assemble and engineer molecular modules into molecular factories approaching the complexity of a cell. These molecular factories will be used for industrial production or to control cellular systems in health and disease.

Progress in areas of science and technology with high societal impact such as medicine, environmental sciences and electronics is predicated upon miniaturization, ultimately to the molecular level, in order to deliver performance compatible with the demands of combined sensitivity, rapidity, and specificity.

Hence, the time is right to use molecules as molecular modules to engineer systems at higher complexity and with an unprecedented functionality. In a biomimetic spirit, the focus of the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering is to establish new engineering principles and to assemble functional molecular modules into complex systems that can fulfill tasks not observed in nature. Molecular modules with defined functions will be integrated to engineer synthetic systems that harness the resulting emerging properties and functional modules towards controlling existing systems, such as a living cell.

The NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering will use complementary and interdisciplinary approaches to establish the engineering of functional molecular modules into systems resembling molecular factories. Examples include nanoreactors equipped with functional modules allowing the chemical modification and transport of molecular compounds, synthetic photoreceptor cells engineered to restore vision, nanoreactors that convert energy and functional modules that work in complementary fashion to convey reactants along spatially designed reaction sequences.

The goal is to encourage novelty and paradigm shifting concepts to model and integrate molecular modules into molecular systems. The big question however remains: Will it be possible to orchestrate complex, cross-regulated processes with molecular factories and apply these in industrial production or to control living systems in health and disease?

Mimicking nature

Biological systems display properties that cannot yet be matched by synthetic approaches. These include the ability to adapt functionality, to regenerate and efficiently convert energy and to control complex cross-regulated molecular processes. Research will not only learn from and mimic nature when engineering molecular systems, but may also introduce functionalities beyond the sophistication of current non-biological and biological systems and apply this knowledge in molecular factories.

A molecular factory?

Imagine a chemical factory shrunk to molecular size, thus invisible to the eye. You cannot picture it? Take a hair: You may think that its diameter is tiny. Think again: A molecular factory is roughly 100’000 times smaller than a hair. Yet, you can compare a molecular factory to a small town, at least in functionality. Just like any small town with a busy train station, a molecular factory comes complete with messengers, signal attendants (emitters), a power plant and a great workforce. The workers – in molecular factories these are the functional molecular modules – are the real craftsmen. These molecular modules are trained to do their work in cells and to function as programmed. For example, to apply and produce new compounds and substances whenever and wherever needed. These modules are appointed within a molecular factory or used as a reactor to dock to a cell and perform certain functions.

Science Fiction?

This is by no means the plot to a science-fiction movie. In a biomimetic spirit, the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering will coordinate efforts to integrate the insights and advances in life sciences into the design of molecular systems with properties approaching that of living systems. Addressing existing and future global challenges, Molecular Systems Engineering can revolutionize medical diagnosis, therapy and treatment and the production of chemical substances.

Media about Molecular Systems Engineering

Read articles on "Microfactories in the body" / "Mikrofabrik im Körper" (Uni Nova, 5/2015) and "Essen Sie eine Fabrik!" (BZ Basel, 8/2014) here.

Who is Who?

Read more about the close to 100 researchers and support personnel exploring and enabling the interdisciplinary research within the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering will.

About the project

How Wolfgang Meier and Daniel Müller came about the idea for an NCCR on molecular systems engineering in 2010.