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Creating Artificial Cells from Bacteria

A team of scientists at the University of Bristol have successfully harnessed bacteria to produce lifelike artificial cells.

To produce artificial cells that have the same capabilities as those that comprise the smallest building blocks of life, scientists at the University of Bristol have managed to use bacteria to develop artificial cells, also known as protocells, which are able to serve as accurate models with similar composition, function, and structure as compared to that of living cells.

Creating a highly accurate protocell model that resembles a real cell is a huge challenge as its development requires interdisciplinary research spanning multiple fields like bioengineering, the origin of life, and synthetic biology. Current attempts to produce protocells using microcapsules have been unsuccessful, so more research has been going underway to figure out a method to assemble and produce artificial cells using bacteria.

Professor Stephen Mann from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry and the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, together with colleagues Drs Can Xu, Nicolas Martin (currently at the University of Bordeaux), and Mei Li in the Bristol Centre for Protolife Research have successfully developed a method to produce highly complex artificial cell models, using bacteria “builders” contained in a viscous micro-droplet “building site”.

To create the protocells, the team added two different types of bacteria to the droplets. One species was distributed throughout the droplet while the other remained on the surface of the droplet, and both populations were destroyed simultaneously.

The destruction of the bacteria resulted in the liberation of all their enclosed cellular components, which either remained distributed in the droplet or on the surface of the droplet.

These protocells were found to be able to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the most common form of chemical energy produced by cells and were also able to produce RNA for gene expression, suggesting that the bacterial contents and organelles were able to continue normal function in the artificial cell environment.

In later stage testings of the newly developed method, the team came up with a framework to manipulate the structure and morphology of the protocells. This process included the condensing of bacterial DNA into one mass resembling a nucleus, while a network of protein filaments resembling a cytoskeleton was inserted, together with a few membrane-enclosed water vacuoles.

As artificial living cells do require a source of energy to be self-sustaining, the team inserted live bacteria into the protocells for consistent ATP production to power other essential processes like cytoskeletal assembly, gene expression, and glycolysis. Due to the bacterial origins of the artificial cell, its exterior resembles that of an amoeba, but other features of the cell resemble that of living cells in general.

The first author, Dr. Can Xu, Research Associate at the University of Bristol, commented, “Our living-material assembly approach provides an opportunity for the bottom-up construction of symbiotic living/synthetic cell constructs. For example, using engineered bacteria it should be possible to fabricate complex modules for development in diagnostic and therapeutic areas of synthetic biology as well as in biomanufacturing and biotechnology in general.” [APBN]

Source: Xu et al. (2022). Living material assembly of bacteriogenic protocells. Nature, 1-9.