Artificial cells created that imitate basic functions of living cells
It may sound like the start of a Frankenstein story, but scientists from New York University (NYU) and the University of Chicago have developed artificial cells made of non-biological matter that mimic the basic functions of living ones.
There was a time when cells were regarded as microscopic blobs of living jelly about as simple as you could get. Today, science has revealed that each cell is a mind-bogglingly complex organic chemical laboratory running on algorithms encoded on strands of DNA.
Recreating something resembling even the simplest of cells in a lab is still very much a pipe dream, but scientists have been trying for decades to mimic the most basic cellular functions because of the large number of potential applications.
The most fundamental function of biological cells is to gather energy in the form of molecules like glucose from the environment around it and use that energy to pump molecules like amino acids in and out of themselves in order to maintain themselves, grow, and reproduce.
In the new study, researchers sought to mimic the active transport function without trying to reproduce the complex mechanisms that cells use. Living cells have intricate membranes, with protein channels and pumping mechanisms powered by mitochondria and Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that allow cells to pump selected molecules in and out across the membrane, even when it means working against osmotic pressures due to differences in ion concentrations.
That's a bit too ambitious, so the team opted for creating bubbles the size of a red blood cell out of polymers and piercing them to let particles pass through, mimicking a cell's protein channel. Instead of mitochondria, the cell mimic had a tiny bit of light-activated catalyst inside the channel. Shining light on the catalyst starts a chemical reaction that acts like a pump to pull material through the channel, while switching off the light traps the material inside and reverses the reaction, expelling the material on demand.
Put it more simply, this mechanism lets the cell mimic ingest, store, process, and expel matter like a living cell.
According to the team, the cell mimic, which can be manufactured in large quantities, can potentially be used to purify water by ingesting microscopic pollutants and bacteria like E. coli. In addition, it may be possible to load the cells with drugs and then release them on command.
The next step will be to mimic other functions and find ways for the cell mimics to communicate with one another.
The research was published in Nature, and the video below shows the cell mimic in action.