Synthetic cells talk bacteria out of infecting

Area of knowledge: Chemistry and Chemical Engineering

Group Leaders:

César Rodriguez-Emmenegger, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) ·
Bioinspired-interactive-materials-and-protocellular-systems group

Jan van Hest, Heindhoven University of Technology ·


Communication is one of the hallmarks of life. Bacteria communicate and use intricate signals to collectively decide to invade, colonize or the begin a survival strategy. Being able to intercept this communication with synthetic cells may open a completely new road for antimicrobials and beyond. In this project the objective is to devise fully synthetic cells to specifically interact with bacteria by activating or repressing their existing natural signaling networks to control their virulence and biofilm formation. This will require three main challenges: (1) design of biomimetic cell membranes with control over permeability, (2) a means to “listen” to the chemical signals from bacteria, (3) a means to “talk” the same chemical language of bacteria. The first challenge will involve the self-assembly of block copolymers, comb polymers or Janus dendrimers. For the listening part, we will explore the use of enzymatic reactions at the cell membrane to activate a riboswitch which enables the biosynthesis of a pore by transcription translation machinery encapsulated inside the synthetic cell. This will enable the release molecules to control bacteria such as quorum quenching, antimicrobials or other molecules that interfere with signaling.

This is a joint project between the groups “Bioinspired Interactive Materials and Protocellular System” (IBEC) and the “Bio-Organic Chemistry” (ICMS) led by Prof Rodriguez-Emmenegger and Prof. van Hest.  The Rodriguez-Emmenegger’s lab overarching goal is to uncover design rules to design materials to interact with living ones, exploiting concepts of polymer science, molecular self-assembly, hierarchy, and biology. They have developed new families of macromolecular amphiphiles to generate biomimetic cell membranes and demonstrated the introduction of active cell machinery. Prof. van Hest works at the cutting edge of polymer chemistry and biomedicine, pioneering the use of polymersomes and coacervates to build synthetic cells.


We seek for a passionate candidate with interest in multidisciplinary research. The candidate will work on the synthesis of building blocks, assembly of synthetic cells and the construction of the communication network. The first task will involve the synthesis of macromolecules that assemble into vesicles and characterization of membrane properties by a number of physical techniques including microscopies (optical and force), mechanical properties, and dynamics. The candidate will also develop the listening module based on enzymes conjugated at the synthetic cell membranes and will also design and build a transcription translation system to introduce the ability to interact with bacteria. These interactions will also be studied and the level of control is  assessed whether this may serve to kill antibiotic resistant bacteria. In addition to traning and direct access to state-of-the-art techniques and facilities, the PhD student will benefit of the training environment of IBEC, an institution that is strongly devoted to the education and training early stage researchers. Furthermore, the candiate has full access to the facilities of ICMS, including the PhD training program

Additional website

Prof van Hest publications · ‪Jan van Hest – ‪Google Académico

Prof. Rodriguez-Emmenegger Website & publications · Rodriguez-Emmenegger Lab/ Bioinspired Interactive Materials and Protocellular Systems (‪César Rodriguez-Emmenegger – ‪Google Académico