Scientists have created ‘living’ synthetic cells by collecting ‘pieces’ of bacteria

(Credits: Nanoclustering/Getty Images)

Translated by Julio Batista
Original by Felicity Jones for ScienceAlert

Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK have taken a big step forward in synthetic biology, designing a system that performs several key functions of a living cell, including generating energy and expressing genes.

His artificially constructed cell even transformed from a sphere shape to a more natural amoeba shape within the first 48 hours of ‘life’, indicating that the proto-cytoskeletal filaments were functioning (or, as the researchers put it, were “structurally dynamic through of extended time scales”).

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Building something that comes close to what we can think of as alive is far from simple, mainly thanks to the fact that even the simplest of organisms depends on countless biochemical operations involving complex mechanisms to grow and replicate.

Scientists have previously focused on getting artificial cells to perform a single function, such as gene expression, enzyme catalysis, or ribozyme activity.

If scientists discover the secret to custom-built and programming artificial cells capable of mimicking life, it could create a wealth of possibilities in everything from manufacturing to medicine.

While some engineering efforts are focused on redesigning the models themselves, others are investigating ways to reduce existing cells to parts that can be rebuilt into something relatively new.

To accomplish this latest feat of bottom-up bioengineering, the researchers used two bacterial colonies – Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa – for such parts.

These two bacteria were mixed with microdrops of a viscous liquid. One population was captured within the droplets and the other was trapped on the surface of the droplets.

Scientists then break down the bacteria’s membranes by bathing the colonies in lysozyme (an enzyme) and melittin (a polypeptide that comes from bee venom).

The bacteria shed their contents, which were captured by the droplets to create membrane-lined protocells.

The scientists then demonstrated that cells were capable of complex processing, such as the production of the energy storage molecule ATP through glycolysis and the transcription and translation of genes.

“Our living material assembly approach provides an opportunity for bottom-up construction of symbiotic living/synthetic cell constructs,” said first author, chemist Can Xu.

“For example, using bioengineered bacteria, it should be possible to manufacture complex modules for development in the diagnostic and therapeutic areas of synthetic biology, as well as biofabrication and biotechnology in general.”

In the future, this type of synthetic cell technology could be used to improve ethanol production for biofuels and food processing.

Combined with knowledge based on advanced models of basic biology, we could mix and match some structures while completely redesigning others to design entirely new systems.

Artificial cells can be programmed to photosynthesize like purple bacteria or generate energy from chemicals, just like sulfate-reducing bacteria.

“We expect the methodology to respond to high levels of programmability,” the researchers said.

This paper was published in nature.

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