Linked artificial cells ignites promise for synthetic biology

Researchers have succeeded in linking together artificial cells, paving the way for new types of chemical catalysts and drug delivery systems.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications, a team headed by Yuval Elani from Imperial College London in the UK reports successfully inducing cell-sized double-layered fluid-filled compartments to link up with each other, thus solving one of the key performance issues with artificial cell technologies.

“Artificial cell membranes usually bounce off each other like rubber balls,” says Elani.

“By altering the biophysics of the membranes in our cells, we got them instead to stick to each other like stickle bricks.”

Getting the cells to adhere to each other is important, because the resulting shapes – and the connections between them – potentially allow a wide range of uses, including the development of a new smart biomaterials. Artificial cells are considered valuable basic building blocks in the emerging field of synthetic biology.

In order to get the cells close enough to join up, Elani and his team employed tools known as “optical tweezers”, which use the radiation pressure from focussed laser beams to manipulate objects on a nano-scale. In effect, the tweezers operated as miniature tractor-beams, moving and placing individual cells.

Once joined together, the cells, in groups of up to five, could then be moved about as a single unit.

The work by Eleni’s team was not just about creating new cellular architecture, but also using it to initiate communication.

“With this, we were able to form networks of cells connected by ‘biojunctions’,” Elani explains.

“By reinserting biological components such as proteins in the membrane, we could get the cells to communicate and exchange material with one another. This mimics what is seen in nature, so it’s a great step forward in creating biological-like artificial cell tissues.”

Using the same approach, the scientists were also able induce a pair of artificial cells to merge into a single, larger unit. The technique points towards new drug delivery systems – where two cells, each containing different chemicals, are converted into one, catalysing a reaction.

The success of the research means that the cells can now be used in greater volumes than before, and assembled into more complex structures.

“Connecting artificial cells together is a valuable technology in the wider tool-kit we are assembling for creating these biological systems using bottom-up approaches,” says co-author Oscar Ces.

“We can now start to scale up basic cell technologies into larger tissue-scale networks, with precise control over the kind of architecture we create.”

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