New artificial cells successfully minimized to target and kill specific bacteria.

An artificial cell is a bioengineered particle mimicking a naturally occurring biological cell. The hypothesis involves synthetic entities biomimicking some of the properties of natural cells, such as surface characteristics, shapes, morphology, or a few specific functions.  Therefore artificial cells have a multitude of applications in many fields from medicine to environmental science. However, even the most basic cellular organism is extremely complex with the synthesis of living artificial cells from inanimate components proving to be quite difficult.  Now, a study from researchers at the University of California, Davis develops artificial cells capable of killing bacteria. The team states they have demonstrated artificial cells can sense, react, and interact with bacteria, as well as function as systems with the capability to both detect and kill bacteria.  The study is published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Previous studies show the construction of artificial cells focuses on building ‘minimal’ cells by reducing or simplifying the genetic network of a living cell. A minimal cell is a theoretical cell possessing the minimum amount of genes needed to survive and fulfill the desired programmed function.  The current study shows the sensitivity of synthetic gene networks to their extracellular chemical contexts can also be minimized, whilst still fulfilling their designated function to target and kill specific bacteria.

The current study engineers artificial cells using bubbles with a cell-like lipid membrane known as liposomes, and purified cellular components including proteins, DNA, and metabolites.  The artificial cells are synthetic biomolecular compartments engineered using liposomes encapsulating the gene networks.  Results show the engineered cells detect, interact with, and kill bacteria in simulated external environments consisting of different chemical complexity.   Data findings show the artificial cells mimic the essential features of live cells, are short-lived, and cannot divide to reproduce themselves.

The lab explains their cells were designed to respond to a unique chemical signature on E. coli bacteria, allowing them to detect, attack, and destroy the bacteria in laboratory experiments.  The group goes on to add their work enables the engineering of synthetic gene networks with minimal dependency on their extracellular environment, creating a new frontier in controlling the robustness of synthetic biologics.

The team surmises they have developed artificial cells with a minimized genetic network able to work in a wide variety of environments to target and kill specific bacteria.  For the future, the researchers state antibacterial artificial cells may one day be used in patients to tackle infections resistant to other treatments.

Source: UC Davis News and Media Relations

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