In synthetic biology, an artificial cell or minimal cell is an engineered particle capable of biomimicking one or many functions of a biological cell. A living artificial cell has been defined as a completely synthetically made cell able to capture energy, maintain ion gradients, contain macromolecules as well as store information with the ability to mutate, however, such a cell has not yet been technically feasible. Now, a study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego has got the closest to developing an actual functioning synthetic eukaryotic cell. The team states their synthetic cell can send protein signals to their neighbors, where the artificial nuclei talks to the rest of the cell releasing RNA involved in the synthesis of proteins.
Previous studies show researchers have already manufactured synthetic cells possessing the capability to communicate with each other by exchanging relatively small molecules such as sugars or hydrogen peroxide. However, many of the molecular signals in the human body, include hormones and cytokines made up of larger proteins. The current study manufactures plastic-coated artificial cells containing a nucleus-like compartment containing DNA lacking a membrane, just like a natural cell’s nucleus, capable of synthesizing large proteins and surrounded by minerals found in clay.
The current study utilizes a silicon-chip with microscopic fluid-filled channels to extrude tiny droplets containing raw materials such as DNA, minerals from clay, and individual acrylate molecules. Ultraviolet light and chemical treatment spurs a porous membrane to form around each droplet. This, in turn, causes the minerals and DNA inside the droplet to condense into a gel with the texture of a soft contact lens, creating a synthetic nucleus. The lab equipped the nuclei of select cell mimics with DNA encoding green fluorescent protein (GFP), and added a sticky stretch of DNA to capture GFP molecules sent by these glowing artificial cells.
Results show by adding a mixture of enzymes and other necessities for protein synthesis, such as ribosomes, to the fluid surrounding the cells they were switched on. Data findings show this molecular machinery crossed the porous membrane, reading the genetic information in the nucleus and sparked synthesis of GFP. The group states their imitation cells also exhibited quorum sensing upon release of the activator of GFP synthesis. They go on to add if a solution contained only a few of the synthetic cells, almost none turned green, and after they reached a threshold density nearly all of them lit up.
The team surmises they have manufactured near-perfect artificial cells with the ability to communicate with nearby counterparts and stimulate them to produce proteins. For the future, the researchers state they hope to equip these or other synthetic cells with the ability to grow and divide, and ensure they are compatible with their natural counterparts.
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