Emulating naturePublished on 04.12.2023

Synthesizing artificial cells

NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials researchers have published a groundbreaking study in the journal Nature Chemistry on the development of artificial cells using synthetic materials. These cells could represent significant progress in the growing field of synthetic biology.  

Artificial cells are microscopic structures that emulate the properties of living cells. They represent important microreactors for the enhancement of chemical reactions and, for molecular systems engineering, act as hosts for synthetic biology pathways. They are also considered important tools to study the origins of life. The team led by NCCR Associate Principal Investigator Prof. Nico Bruns (TU Darmstadt) has developed an enzymatic synthesis of polymeric microcapsules and used them to encapsulate the soluble contents of bacterial cells. They created, with this method called biocatalytic polymerization-induced self-assembly (bioPISA), artificial cells capable of producing a range of proteins internally. These include a fluorescent protein, the structural protein actin to craft a cytoskeleton-like structure, and the enzyme alkaline phosphatase to imitate the biomineralization process found in our bones. The expression of these proteins not only mimics one of the fundamental properties of living cells but also showcases the potential of these artificial cells in various applications, from drug delivery to tissue engineering.

"Our study bridges a crucial gap in synthetic biology, merging the world of synthetic materials with enzymatic processes to create complex, artificial cells, just like real cells", says Dr. Andrea Belluati, the lead co-author of the study. "This opens up new horizons in creating cell mimics that are not just structurally similar to biological cells but functionally competent as well."

“Enzymatic radical polymerization is the key to creating these artificial cells”, explains Bruns. “Enzymes synthesize polymers that self-assemble during the polymerization into nano- and micro-sized polymer capsules. This is a very simple yet efficient way to prepare artificial cells. In the future, we aim to use proteins expressed in the artificial cells to catalyze further polymerizations, thereby mimicking the growth and replication of natural cells.”

This research, a collaborative effort between the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, the Adolphe Merkle Institute (University of Fribourg), and the University of Basel in Switzerland, marks a milestone in the synthesis of life-like artificial cells according to the researchers.  It is a result of a project funded by the NCCR Bio-Inspired Materials, an EU-funded Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship, and a project from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Reference: Belluati, A.; Jimaja, S.; Chadwick, R. J.; Glynn, C.; Chami, M.; Happel, D.; Guo, C.; Kolmar, H.; Bruns, N. Artificial Cell Synthesis Using Biocatalytic Polymerization-Induced Self-Assembly. Nat. Chem. 2023, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41557-023-01391-y.