Scientists Take First Steps to Creating Artificial Cells

First Posted: Sep 08, 2014 09:40 AM EDT

Scientists have taken the first steps when it comes to creating artificial cells. They've successfully implemented a minimalistic model of the cell that can change its shape and move on its own.

Cells are relatively complex. They have a sophisticated metabolic system and perform a variety of functions in the body. The evolutionary ancestors of cells, though, are called primordial cells, and were merely composed of a membrane and a few molecules. While minimalist, these primordial cells were perfectly functioning systems. That's why the researchers turned to this simple cell model in their latest research.

The researchers decided to create a cell-like model with a biomechanical function. This model was actually able to move and change its shape without external influences. In this case, the researchers used a membrane shell, two different kinds of biomolecules and a type of fuel. The membrane, called a vesicle, is created with a double-layered lipid membrane. The scientists filled the vesicals with microtubules and kinesin molecules. They also incorporated the energy carrier ATP.

The microtubules in particular formed a two-dimensional liquid crystal under the membrane, which is in a permanent state of motion. In order for the cell to deform, the liquid crystal must always contain faults. At certain locations, the microtubules are oriented orthogonally to each other. Because the microtubules were in constant motion alongside each other, the faults migrate in a uniform and periodic manner, oscillating between two fixed orientations.

"With our synthetic biomolecular model we have created a novel option for developing minimal cell models," said Andreas Bausch, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It is ideally suited to increasing the complexity in a modular fashion in order to reconstruct cellular processes like cell migration or cell division in a controlled manner. That the artificially created system can be comprehensively described from a physical perspective gives us hope that in the next steps we will also be able to uncover the basic principles behind the manifold cell deformations."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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