Lennard van Buren

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PhD student: Biological Soft Matter

CV / Biography

Cellular life is astonishingly complex and still far from being understood. Although we know a good deal about the building blocks that make up the basis of modern life, we currently do not comprehend how these building blocks cooperate to define life. Building a synthetic cell that is able to mimic the functionalities of its biological counterpart is a bottom-up approach to elucidate the cell’s intricate working.

My PhD research takes part in the Dutch research consortium BaSyC (Building a Synthetic Cell), funded by NWO, where an interdisciplinary team of researchers collaborate to create a cell from the bottom-up. More specifically, the focus of my project is to provide the growing cell with mechanical stability.

A typical cell cycle involves cell growth, up to a doubling of the cell volume, after which the cell divides and the process is repeated all over. For this twofold increase of the cell volume, a tight regulation between cellular volume and surface area is crucial. For example, when the volume increases too fast the molecularly thick cell membrane can easily rupture, leading to lysis of the cell, whereas growth of excessive membrane area can lead to undesired cell shape transitions and blebbing of the membrane.

This is one of the reasons that cellular life has adopted a variety of strategies to mechanically protect itself. Animal cells possess an actin cortex that is anchored to the lipid membrane, thereby serving as a rigid meshwork that stabilizes the membrane. So-called L-bacteria lack such a support from the cytoskeleton, but have adopted lipid-based strategies that improve the mechanical strength of the membrane.

In my project, I aim to mimic biological mechanoprotective strategies in the synthetic cell, and subsequently to quantify their effect on the cell’s mechanical properties. To this end, I form giant unilamellar vesicles (GUVs) with lipid bilayer membranes as a model cell system. Subsequently, the GUVs will be endowed with different methods of mechanoprotection. I study how these strategies change the mechanical behaviour of the synthetic cell by using advanced microscopy and high-throughput aspiration techniques. In this way, I strive to contribute to our understanding of how biological cells are able to mechanically protect themselves.