By Matthew LaPointe

JCVI Team Awarded Two Grants Under the National Science Foundation’s “Understanding the Rules of Life” Initiative, Building on 20 Years of JCVI Research



Dr. John Glass

The first award, led by John Glass, PhD, for $1M, is focused on “Building and Modeling Synthetic Bacterial Cells.” The second award, led by Zaida Luthey-Schulten, PhD, at the University of Illinois, also for $1M, is titled “Balancing the Demands of a Minimal Cell,” and is focused on cell modeling.

Building and Modeling Synthetic Bacterial Cells

Under the “Building and Modeling Synthetic Bacterial Cells” project Dr. Glass and team will continue developing the groundbreaking science pioneered at JCVI through the First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell and First Minimal Synthetic Bacterial Cell projects.

Dr. Glass stated that “This new award is aimed at taking our minimal cell genome and combining it with a set of non-living parts to produce, in essence from scratch, a living organism.”

He continued, “In doing this we believe we can both learn more about how biology works and about how we would build cells from scratch, capable of surviving and functioning and doing useful things in conditions that might not be amenable to normal cell growth.”

Ultimately, Dr. Glass said this will lead to a new industry based on synthetic cells.

Minimal Cell Modeling

For the past two years the team at JCVI has been working with a team of chemists and computational biologists at the University of Illinois, led by Dr. Luthey-Schulten to develop minimal cell modeling.

The JCVI and University of Illinois teams will continue this work through a new award titled “Balancing the Demands of a Minimal Cell.”

Dr. Glass described the project as “extending the minimal cell model and trying to get closer to understanding what each of the proteins and RNA molecules in the cell does, with the aim of getting a complete understanding of how cells work.”


Both awards are part of NSF’s “Understanding the Rules of Life” initiative, which is part of its broader “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments” program. These awards are funded through the Research Advanced by Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (RAISE) program, which are bold, interdisciplinary projects whose scientific advances lie mostly outside the scope of a single discipline and appear to promise transformational advances.