Science

Synthetic cell membrane marks another step towards creation of fully artificial life forms

Chemists have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes that could help shed light on the origins of life (Image: Image: Shutterstock)
Chemists have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes that could help shed light on the origins of life (Image: Image: Shutterstock)
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The process used by Deveraj and Budin to create a synthetic cell membrane
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The process used by Deveraj and Budin to create a synthetic cell membrane
Chemists have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes that could help shed light on the origins of life (Image: Image: Shutterstock)
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Chemists have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes that could help shed light on the origins of life (Image: Image: Shutterstock)

The cell membrane is one of the most important components of a cell because it separates the interior from the environment and controls the movement of substances in and out of the cell. In a move that brings mankind another step closer to being able to create artificial life forms from scratch, chemists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and Harvard University have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes using a novel chemical reaction. The chemists hope their creation will help shed light on the origins of life.

As the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms, the cell is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing. Although there are various theories - meteorites, deep-sea vents, lightning - there is still no scientific consensus regarding the origin of the first cell.

"We don't understand this really fundamental step in our existence, which is how non-living matter went to living matter," said Neal Devaraj, assistant professor of chemistry at UCSD. "So this is a really ripe area to try to understand what knowledge we lack about how that transition might have occurred. That could teach us a lot - even the basic chemical, biological principles that are necessary for life."

Cell membranes are composed of a lipid bilayer usually made mostly of phosopholids that have heads that mix easily with water and tails that repel it. When exposed to water, they arrange themselves to form a double layer with heads out and tails in, forming a barrier that sequesters the contents of the cells. Devaraj and Itay Budin, a graduate student at Harvard University, created similar molecules with a novel reaction that joins two chains of lipids.

"In our system, we use a sort of primitive catalyst, a very simple metal ion," Devaraj said. "The reaction itself is completely artificial. There's no biological equivalent of this chemical reaction. This is how you could have a de novo formation of membranes."

The process used by Deveraj and Budin to create a synthetic cell membrane
The process used by Deveraj and Budin to create a synthetic cell membrane

The synthetic membranes were created from a watery emulsion of an oil and detergent that is, on its own, very stable. But the chemists say that adding copper ions results in sturdy vesicles and tubules beginning to bud off the oil droplets. After 24 hours, the oil droplets are gone, having been "consumed" by the self-assembling membranes.

Although a research team from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI) had previously claimed to successfully produce the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell, only its genome was artificial. To claim fully artificial life would also require a synthetic three-dimensional structure to house the information-carrying genome. Something that Deveraj says is, "trivial and can be done in a day. New people who join the lab can make membranes from day one."

Devaraj and Budin's research is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: UCSD

27 comments
Michael Mantion
My mad scientist radar just went crazy...
tdingle
\"Although there are various theories - meteorites, deep-sea vents, lightning - there is still no scientific consensus regarding the origin of the first cell.\" I think we should add intelligent design to that sentence if we are listing all of the possibilities.
mj25
So we are sure there is no God that created life? I mean if a simple scientist can do it then we really have nothing to live for accept ourselves till the cells die. Great can cross that off my list of things to do, now on to do whatever I want for 40 more years.
Aladdin Connolly
@TDINGLE. The Intelligent Design hypothesis, is only that a creator did something, not what exactly \"it\" did. In other words if humans managed to create life which eventually evolved intelligence and tried to figure out how it came to be. The answer: \"we were made by humans\", would not explain the creation process. How life came to be would still consist of steps: w material had x reaction with y and that produced z, which combined with a and the...... etc etc. So ID is not a theory on the actual origin of life mechanisms.
tdingle
@Aladdin. The creator did do something, created life on earth. Regarding "if humans managed to create life," it would also be by ID. As for the equation of (wx)y=z, try using w=meteorites, x=deep-sea vents, y=lightning produced z ( life ). It's not a bad theory, but I think we could add some cosmic rays to really get the soup cooking.
Gregg Eshelman
Makes me think of \"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep\", the SF story that got bastardized into the movie \"Blade Runner\". In the story the androids weren\'t robotic, they were artificially created life forms. They couldn\'t reproduce and had a limited lifespan.
donwine
One can build a motor but it will remain a dead motor without electricity. If one could build a cell - it would remain dead without life. And indisputable fact is that life can only come from life. When the life goes out - it will not come back. If the current is removed from the motor - the motor will never run again until electricity or life is connected. Life must have a source. All names are nouns except one. The name of the creator is a verb. In fact an action verb which when translated means \"causes to become.\" Every living thing is alive because it came from a previous life form. Thus all life can be traced back to an original source. Some have gone extinct and will remain dead until the source of life returns it.
Reason
tdingle by your reckoning we should add the Tooth Fairy to the list, but no, in case you missed it we are talking about science and creationism (can you at least be honest and call it by its real name?) has nothing to do with science.
covenantfarm
Great discussion. I was waiting for tdingle to be lambasted by a dozen posts about how ridiculous his position was. I am pleasantly surprised. For those who want to read an MIT professor expound about a different perspective on a 15 billion year old universe AND 6 - 24 hour days of creation, check out \"The Science of God\" by Shroeder. Very interesting. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too.
tdingle
@covenantfarm. Thanks. @mcsblues. At its very essence, the creator is science. And, I do like to use creator - creationism sounds more like a God and religion. If you don't mind I want to share a brief talk I had with some biologists at a conference. I was there as IT support and I had four biologists around me getting coffee. I said "How do you guys feel about ID?" They laughed there asses off and looked at me as though I said do you believe in the Tooth Fairy. I said "Oh I don't believe in that and can't understand why anyone would." At this point I was doing a little fishing. Then I said, "Does anyone know what the smallest living thing is?" They said a few examples. I said "wow that's small, but how small is it at the atomic and molecular level?" They said it huge at that level - tens of thousands of atoms and molecules. I said "wow, how big was the first living thing? It must have been smaller than that, right." The biologists squirmed a little and one said pointedly "no one knows that answer." I said (with a really dumbfounded look), "was it ten atoms long?" Now one of them looked at me with pity in his eyes and said "my dear boy, it would be much larger than that." I then said, "Are any of you good with math? What are the odds of that happening randomly and how did it know it was alive?" At this point they got up and left. I set the hook but the fish got away. Most people talk about the first living thing (both evolutionists and creationists) as though it's just there already - done deal, move on. I like to think about it from the atomic level - just how small was it? If it's very small the odds of it happening randomly increase, but if it big, aren't the odds in the billions or trillions to one? It might be because I loved to play Lego's when I was a kid that I imagine a Lego kit with atoms from the periodic table in it. The creator has a user guide for his kit. You don't even have someone assembling your kit. Your kit falls on the ground and randomly makes life, and if it doesn't the first time you just keep throwing your kit on the ground. I guess what it comes down to is faith. I don't have the faith that you (and the evolutionist) have. The belief that something as incredibly improbable as randomly making life is something I just can't take on faith. I put my faith in science.
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