Membrane-less organelles research project receives funding from the Volkswagen Foundation


As part of his “Life? Project, the Volkswagen Foundation is funding a research project that sheds light on membrane-free organelles in cells in order to understand the fundamental processes that are essential to life. Professor Edward Lemke will receive funding of around € 1 million over the next five years to support his work in this area. With his research team, Lemke recently demonstrated that it is possible to design an organelle without a membrane that can take on completely new functions within a cell. The biophysical chemist is professor of synthetic biophysics at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz (JGU) and deputy director at the Institute for Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz.

Organelles in a living cell are able to produce artificial proteins

The evolution of complex life forms received a major boost when cells began to develop internal organelles. Organelles are compartmentalized areas within cells that perform specific tasks. Among these, for example, are the mitochondria which generate energy, the cell nucleus which stores genetic material and – in the case of plants – the chloroplasts which are responsible for photosynthesis. Some organelles are surrounded by membranes such that the cell nucleus has the nuclear membrane, while others are membraneless. “It would be difficult to design an artificial organelle with a membrane because then a system would also have to be created for the efficient transport of molecules across this membrane,” said Professor Edward Lemke. However, he and his team managed to construct entirely new membrane-less organelles in a living cell. This cell then has multiple genetic codes.

These novel organelles are able to incorporate synthetic amino acids into proteins, resulting in proteins with innovative engineering functions that can be used in a range of applications in the fields of biotechnology, materials science and of biomedicine. It would, for example, be conceivable to integrate fluorescent components which would make it possible to actually visualize the interior of the cell under consideration using imaging techniques or even to generate antibody-drugs for targeted therapy against cancer.

The idea of ​​building an organelle without a membrane is the key

“Our breakthrough is based on rejecting the idea that it is necessary for an organelle in a cell to have a membrane or similar form of enveloping structure in order to have the potential to perform certain functions,” Lemke pointed out. “Thanks to this simple but very convincing concept, we have now discovered a remarkable way to reproduce all the other major cellular processes. In line with the researchers’ expectations, it turned out that they were indeed able to create an individually adaptable cellular system that worked in parallel with the other functions of the cell. Their goal now is to cultivate a new type of cell within a living cell – organelle by organelle and function by function. “With this new approach, we should be able, step by step, to observe and investigate the origin of eukaryotic life and the aging of eukaryotes.”

The research project entitled “De novo organization design from membraneless orthogonal central dogma organelles” is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation as part of the last round of funding of its “Life? – A Fresh Scientific Approach to the Basic Principles of Life ”. The aim of this funding initiative is to promote research on the principles of life at the interface between the natural sciences and the life sciences.

Edward Lemke is Professor of Synthetic Biophysics at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz as well as Deputy Director at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB). He also coordinates the DFG priority program on “Molecular mechanisms of functional phase separation”. He received an ERC Advanced Grant worth € 2.5 million in 2020 to support his research.


Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz (JGU)

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