Artificial cells have been developed by researchers such that they can respond to external chemical forces like real cells. This brings us closer to developing and using synthetic biological structures in real-world situations such as targeted drug delivery or cleaning up pollution. Scientists have succeeded in getting artificial cells to glow with fluorescence upon detection of calcium. Calcium signalling is a basic skill of a biological cell for communication. It is a significant step in the development of artificial cells which can be manipulated and programmed.
James Hindley, a chemical biologist from Imperial College London in the UK says it has uses across the field of biotechnology. Artificial cells are able to sense cancer markers and then synthesize a drug within the body or can sense dangerous heavy metals in the environment and release selective sponges for their absorption.
Hindley and his colleagues made up cells which had smaller compartments called vesicles to get the desired reactions. The edges have a lipid membrane containing pores which allows calcium to enter and activate the enzymes inside the vesicles to produce the fluorescing effect.
This does not match completely with biological cells but can be constructed to serve a certain special purpose. Editing of cells is very difficult as many existing chemical response pathways are extremely complicated to copy or design as biology has evolved to be robust by using complex metabolic and regulatory networks.
Researchers create a truncated version of a pathway that is found in nature using artificial cells to create shorter and more efficient pathways that produce the same result. Simplified pathways have other benefits like by-products which are toxic to the cell don’t have to be factored in. By picking and choosing the right elements, as the artificial cell activated by calcium is from bee venom, researchers are able to produce something which is not possible on editing the existing cells.
Earlier this year, scientists have developed artificial cells which were able to make their own energy through photosynthesis and specially constructed membrane which may lead to cells that sustain themselves. There has to be harmony between the artificial and real cells and that artificial cells are smart enough to trick real cells to think they are genuine.
The plug and play aspect of the system helps researchers to take elements across nature and create new chemical pathways with a specific aim. The template system can be easily set up and can be used quickly for testing a new combination of elements the researchers come up with.