OL.20.005 – The limits to growth: the challenge to dissipate energy

Route: The origin of life - on earth and in the universe

Cluster question: 136 Cells are the buildings blocks of life. How do they work and what can they teach us about life processes?

Growth of cells is inherently connected with the origin of life. Despite 4 billion years of evolution there seems to be an upper limit to how fast cells can grow. However, it is poorly understood what physical principles constrain growth. A recent discovery opens a new perspective on what limits cell growth: growth might be limited by the rate at which cells can dissipate Gibbs energy to the environment. Similar to a mechanical machine, which should not be operated above an upper rate, cells apparently also do not function above a critical Gibbs energy dissipation rate. Insight in life’s boundaries forms one of the most pressing scientific challenges in biology, but is also highly relevant for industrial biotechnology.
In this project, we aim to unravel the molecular basis for the upper Gibbs energy dissipation limit. We hypothesize that the energy released in enzymatic reactions of living cells is partly dissipated as work, leading to molecule movement inside cells, too much of which compromises biomolecular functions. Through concerted efforts of industrial stakeholders and academic partners drawing on physics, biology and chemistry, and exploiting in vitro and in vivo experiments and computational analyses, we will investigate how catalysis-induced molecule movement constrains cellular metabolism and growth, leading to fundamental understanding of the limits of cell growth.


cell growth, cellular metabolism, energy dissipation, enzyme diffusion, science communication

Other organisations

and several companies, HKU University of the Arts Utrecht, RWTH Aachen Univ.


Organisation University of Groningen (RUG)
Name Prof.dr. M. (Matthias) Heinemann
E-mail m.heinemann@rug.nl
Website https://www.rug.nl/staff/m.heinemann/