Science 3 min read

Artificial Cells That can Sense Chemical Signals Created

Mimicking biological cells, artificial cells that can sense and respond to their environment could lead to innovative applications in biotechnology.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

The natural cells‘ constant reaction to the chemical changes in their environment is considered a critical part of our body’s biological process.

The presence of certain chemicals leads cells to respond with specific actions. For example, they react by synthesizing some molecules like proteins, producing and releasing energy, or decomposing.

Cells also rely on chemical signals to communicate with each other. They can generate chemical molecules and release them into the extracellular space for other cells to pick the signals up, such as a pain impulse, and coordinate a response.

Scientists are taking a cue from nature to design artificial cells programmed for specific tasks that living cells won’t do.

Sensitive and Responsive Artificial Cells

It sounds exciting to have biological cells do what we want them to do. Like, for example, releasing a drug molecule where it’s needed.

But scientists can’t control the very complex chemical response pathways. It would be easier to engineer a simpler version of the natural chemical response pathway, using artificial cells, to do the job.

That’s what researchers at the Imperial College London have been exploring in recent years. Artificial cell research in this public institution goes into different avenues, like “mini-factories” made of living and synthetic cells, or artificial cells-in-cells acting as cellular chemical reactors.

This time, an Imperial team has created “the first artificial cells that can sense and respond to an external chemical signal through activation of an artificial signaling pathway.”  These cells sense calcium ions and respond by glowing (fluorescence).

First author James Hindley, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, explains the significance of their system for biotechnology:

“We could envisage creating artificial cells that can sense cancer markers and synthesize a drug within the body, or artificial cells that can sense dangerous heavy metals in the environment and release selective sponges to clean them up.”

Read More: Designer Protein Switch for Controlling Living Cells

The artificial cells the team created contain ‘vesicles,’ smaller cells, which release the fluorescing particles. Calcium ions, which trigger the response by activating some enzymes, enter from pores on the membrane of the cell.

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The development of artificial cells, an emerging technology, marks the beginning of a new era for cell therapies and other innovative applications.

The Imperial College London’s system, in addition to its simplicity compared to the natural pathway, is based on elements taken from existing biological systems, like the enzyme they took from bee venom.

“Our template system is also easy to set up and can be used to quickly test any new combination of elements researchers come up with.”

“The plug-and-play” aspect of this artificial cell system allows researchers to try different elements found in nature to design specific chemical pathways.

Read More: Researchers Create Embryonic Cells Using Skin Cells In Mice

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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