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Artificial Cells Reacting To Changes In The Environment

The cell is the basic unit of life, it makes up the building blocks of life. Cells provide a dynamic and distinct environment to sustain life, for reactions to take place and for the fundamental molecules of life to interact. However, understanding what takes place inside the cell is difficult as the biological cell is very complicated. There are countless molecules including proteins, DNA, fats (lipids) and sugars inside the cell. How does a cell in such a complex environment, organizes all these components to function can be understood by designing synthetic cells that can mimic certain cellular processes and that has fewer components to engineering simple systems. Combining biology and engineering, this research field of synthetic biology focuses on simplifying parts of the natural biological system to understand its process.

Artificial cells reacting to changes
Synthetic cells with compartments. Magenta shows the lipid membrane, cyan shows the fluorescently tagged membrane-free sub-compartments. (Image Credits: Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics)

Such an engineering challenge was accomplished by the scientists at the Max-Planck-Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden built a synthetic

cell that can encapsulate fundamental biochemical reactions.  They also show that such a minimal system was able to respond to environmental changes.

Building dynamic systems are still very difficult despite much progress in the synthetic biology field. Now, a synthetic cell that can react to changes in the environment has been built by the research team, funded through the MaxSynBio network, made up of Dora Tang from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden in collaboration with scientists from the Max-Planck-Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, Tom Robinson and Rumiana Dimova. A compartment having that contains a membrane-free sub-compartment inside it was constructed by the researchers. Depending on changes to the environment, this sub-compartment can assemble and disassemble.

Responsive sub-compartments

Creating a sub-compartment from molecules that were floating within the synthetic cell was the key challenge during this process. Fluorescence microscopy was used to visualize these cells. The first author of the study, Celina Love explains, “Components inside a cell can respond to the acidity of an environment just like how our taste buds can let us experiences tastes that are sour or salty. We found that we can affect the behavior of molecules coming together and their ability to form sub-compartments by changing the pH of the environment. It was exciting to see how by changing the acidity within the synthetic cell, the chemical reactions could be switched on and off.”

The supervisor of the study, Dora Tang said, “In designing more complex synthetic cells that can mimic biological behaviors, our work is a major step forward. To address fundamental questions in biology, such as how cells perform and tune basic cellular functions such as metabolism by integrating a multitude and variety of signals from the environment, this tunable synthetic system presents exciting possibilities.”

Artificial cells reacting to changes SOURCE