Researchers induce artificial metabolism in synthetic DNA.

Cellular metabolism is the sum of all chemical changes occurring in living organisms in order to maintain life. This includes the synthesis of new molecules, and the breakdown and removal of others.

Cellular metabolism involves complex sequences of controlled biochemical reactions or metabolic pathways, these processes are crucial in the reproduction and growth of all organisms. Likewise, these processes help organisms to maintain their structures and respond to environmental changes.  Although some biological approaches for engineering metabolite materials have been reported, the construction of synthetic materials biomimicking metabolism has not yet been achieved. 

Now, a study from researchers led by Cornell University engineers ‘lifelike or dynamic’ materials capable of artificial metabolism and its accompanying traits.  The team states using what they call DASH (DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical) materials, they were able to construct a DNA material with capabilities of metabolism. Additionally, these materials were also able to self-assemble, a key trait of life.  The opensource study is published in the journal Science Robotics.

Self-assembling exobiologics

Previous studies show characteristic properties of life, such as dynamic self-generation of organisms, are sustained by metabolism.  Mimicking metabolism in artificial systems may lead to the engineering of novel dynamic biomaterials with characteristic properties of life.

Similarly, this technique may also give rise to the ‘birth’ of human-scale bioengineered robots via artificial wombs.  However, mimicking metabolism from the ground up has yet to be achieved.  The current study develops a brand-new, lifelike material powered by its very own artificial metabolism.

The current study develops a biomaterial using DASH which can autonomously emerge from its nanoscale building blocks and arrange itself. Indeed, this self-arrangement begins with polymers to form mesoscale shapes.

Results show the DNA molecules were multiplied hundreds of thousands of times, creating chains of repeating DNA a few millimeters in size. Data findings show injecting the reaction solution into a microfluidic device provides a liquid flow of energy and the necessary building blocks for biosynthesis and degradation.

A metabolic, ‘crawling’ exobiologic

The lab states by using different pathways through the channels, obstacles in the mixing chambers, and tweaking the ingredients, DASH can be directed to move like a slime mold. Moreover, DNA growing at one end of a structure can be made to break down to create fresh material at the other end. Subsequently making the material effectively crawl along a surface.  They go on to add the resulting exobiologics are bioengineered machines, complete with emergent regeneration and locomotion behaviors.

The team surmises they have engineered a bottom-up construction of a dynamic biomaterial powered by artificial metabolism. Furthermore, this represents a combination of irreversible biosynthesis and dissipative assembly processes seen in nature.  For the future, the researchers state the system could be used to create a dynamic template for making proteins without living cells.

Source: Cornell University

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