ERC Advanced Grant 2011 for CellNetworks Member Joachim Spatz
Posted January 03 2012
Funding of up to 3.5 Million Euros for his project 'Synthetic Biology Approach to Adhesion-Mediated Environmental Sensing'

CellNetworks member Joachim Spatz, professor for biophysical chemistry at Heidelberg University and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart has been awarded an ERC advanced grant for his project 'Synthetic Biology Approach to Adhesion-Mediated Environmental Sensing'.


In his project, systems-level molecular cell biology approaches will be combined with advanced synthetic biology and biophysics, to elucidate the molecular basis for the assembly and function of integrin-mediated adhesion and signaling sites, aiming to design a novel cell-mimetic model (“synthetic cell”) with self-assembly, self-propelling and environmental sensing properties.

The primary aims of this work which are tightly connected to each other are:

  • The development of a bio-inspired “synthetic cell” capable of self-assembling, self-propelling and environmental sensing prepared with reduced molecular complexity, compared to living cells.

  • The quantitative assessment of the bio-activity of specific cellular components within these “synthetic cells”, leading to better fundamental understanding of the functions of these molecules in living cells.

  • The use of these findings for reverse engineering of living cells with tailored adhesive and mechano-chemical sensory properties.


Integrin based adhesion has been shown to participate in numerous processes in living cells, which sense, via their adhesions, multiple environmental cues, integrate them, and develop a complex, multi-parametric response. However, due to their intrinsic molecular complexity the specific functional roles of different components of the adhesion site are still poorly understood.


To address this issue, current knowledge of the modular nature of focal adhesions and related integrin-mediated extracellular matrix contacts will be utilized to develop “synthetic cell” models, consisting of large lipid vesicles, functionalized by transmembrane integrins, various integrin-binding proteins, and specific sets of scaffolding and signaling proteins of the adhesion sites. The one-by-one loading of these vesicles by micro-injection technology with these proteins will allow the scientists to tightly control the composition and the complexity of the system and test the effect of compositional and environmental variations on the adhesion and signaling features. The “synthetic cells” will be plated on adhesive matrices displaying specific spatial, chemical and mechanical features for testing the “synthetic cells' ” chemical- and mechanical-sensing capabilities. The datasets produced in these experiments will provide a solid basis for reverse engineering of living cells, in which specific functional pathways will be targeted and / or modified to specifically modulate the functionality of these living cells. 


Spatz: ‘We expect that this unique, interdisciplinary, two-way combination of molecular cell biology and synthetic biology will pave the avenue towards the development of a novel type of “smart synthetic cell model”, capable of molecular sensing capabilities, that could be applied for other complex cell biological applications in the far future’.


ERC Advanced Grants are "intended to support the very best research to be conducted in EU Member States and Associated Countries. Being highly competitive and awarded on the sole criterion of excellence, without restriction to particular areas of research, the grants are aimed to promote substantial advances at the frontiers of knowledge, and to encourage new productive lines of enquiry and new methods and techniques, including unconventional approaches and investigations at the interface between established disciplines." The aim is to fund individual teams led by established, innovative and active advanced investigators regardless of nationality, age or current location. The maximum grant amount will be EUR 2 500 000 for a maximum period of 5 years. In exceptional cases an additional sum of up to EUR 1 000 000 funding can be made available.