Breakthrough in the synthesis of artificial cells

International Team publishes results in “Nature Chemistry“


A groundbreaking study published in “Nature Chemistry” reveals a remarkable leap in the synthesis of artificial cells using synthetic materials, achieved by an international team led by Dr. Andrea Belluati, Prof. Nico Bruns (both TU Darmstadt) and Dr. Sètuhn Jimaja (University of Fribourg). These cells, crafted through a process called biocatalytic polymerization-induced self-assembly (bioPISA), represent a significant advancement in the field of synthetic biology.

The research work represents a milestone in the synthesis of life-like artificial cells.
The research work represents a milestone in the synthesis of life-like artificial cells.

Artificial cells are microscopic structures that emulate the properties of living cells. They represent important microreactors to enhance chemical reactions and for molecular systems engineering, act as hosts for synthetic biology pathways, and are important tools to study the origin of life. The team developed an enzymatic synthesis of polymeric microcapsules and used them to encapsulate the soluble contents (i. e. the cytosol) of bacterial cells, thereby creating artificial cells with the ability to produce a range of proteins on their inside, including 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 human bones.

The expression of 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.

New horizons in creating cell mimics

“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 Andrea Belluati. “This opens up new horizons in creating cell mimics that are not just structurally similar to biological cells but functionally competent as well.”

Nico Bruns adds: “Enzymatic radical polymerizations are the key to creating these artificial cells. 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 the artificial cells. In future work, we aim to use proteins expressed in the artificial cells to catalyse further polymerizations, thereby mimicking the growth and replication of natural cells.”

Dr. Andrea Belluati (TU Darmstadt)

Prof. Dr. Nico Bruns (TU Darmstadt)

Dr. Sètuhn Jimaja (Universität Fribourg)

This research, a collaborative effort spanning the Department of Chemistry and Centre for Synthetic Biology of Technical University of Darmstadt, the University of Strathclyde, the Adolphe Merkle Institute of the University of Fribourg, and the University of Basel, marks a milestone in the synthesis of life-like artificial cells. It is a result of a project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation through the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Bio-Inspired Materials, an EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship to Andrea Belluati, and a project from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.