Artificial cells produce their own energy and synthesize themselves.

It is hoped constructing living artificial cells will help understand the evolutionary transition from non-living to living matter on earth. Additionally, this may also help develop biology-based devices capable of sensing light and driving biochemical reactions.

Many synthetic intracellular systems have been reconstructed by assembling molecules, however, the mechanism to self-power themselves has not yet been developed. 

Now, a study from researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology constructs artificial cells using minimal components with the ability to supply energy to themselves. Moreover, this energy can be used to drive gene expression and self-renewal for crucial cell parts. The team states their work may shed light on how primordial cells used sunlight as an energy source early in life’s history.  The opensource study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Self-powered artificial cells

Previous studies show artificial sub‐cellular systems can be built by simply mixing cell components together, however, natural living cells construct and organize their own components. It has also been a long time goal of research to build artificial cells able to synthesize their own constituents using energy generated by these cells themselves.  The current study constructs a simple artificial cell possessing the capability to produce chemical energy to enable the synthesis of their own parts.

The current study develops artificial cells wrapped in lipid membranes containing small structures.  The structures contained within the lipid membranes are two proteins named ATP synthase. These are known to produce the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the natural cell, as well as bacteriorhodopsin, a light-harvesting protein which helps ATP synthase operate.

Results show these proteins work in tandem, using light energy to create an energy difference inside the cell, harnessing this energy difference to construct more molecules ad protein.  Data findings show the photosynthesis process was a success with the artificial cells mimicking real cells by making messenger RNA (mRNA) from DNA and then making protein from the manufactured mRNA. 

Synthetic cells can ‘generate’ parts

The lab stresses the key feature is the cells’ ability to produce its own energy to synthesize parts of itself, potentially leading to the development of self-renewing artificial cells.  They conclude the newly formed bacteriorhodopsin and ATP synthase parts then spontaneously integrate into the artificial photosynthetic organelles and further enhance ATP photosynthesis activity.

The team surmises they have developed artificial cells adapted to produce chemical energy used by the cell to self-renew small structures within the lipid membrane.  For the future, the researchers state artificial cells could be made to be energetically independent so as to develop self-sustaining cells, like their naturally-occurring counterparts.

Source: Tokyo Institute of Technology

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