For many years, scientists have tried to mimic naturally occurring cells. These attempts have met partial success with some experiments leading to mimics that can perform certain functions. However, these synthetic cells did not have the ability to source molecules like glucose or amino acids from their environment.
Quickly taking you back to middle school biology class, there are some tell-tale signs of life. Living things grow, they breathe, they move around, they feed off things and excrete out waste from their bodies. From amoebae to large whales, every living being does these. Researchers at NYU collaborated with their peers at The University of Chicago and developed a way to allow synthetic cells to do that too, they have engineered synthetic cells that can actively move molecules inside and outside the cell.
The study was published in the journal Nature.
The researchers created their cells with a polymer and punched small holes in the membrane to mimic the channels that allow the movement of cargo inside naturally occurring cells. But actively moving molecules inside the cell requires energy. So, the team created an artificial pump by using a chemically reactive component.
The pump is photo-reactive which activates when you shine a light on it. The reaction causes a small amount of vacuum to be created inside the cell that exerts a suction force and pulls items outside the cell into the cell’s interior. When the light is put off, the pump stops acting and the cargo is retained.
In the video above, the cell on the left is a passive cell that does not have the light-activated pump, and therefore it cannot ingest any molecules actively.
“At the heart of the cell-like structure’s design is the synergy between an active element that powers it from the inside and the physical constraints imposed by the cell walls, allowing them to ingest, process, and expel foreign bodies,” said Stefano Sacanna, lead author of the study and associate professor of chemistry at NYU in a press release.
The synthetic cells can be used for a wide variety of applications ranging from ingesting harmful bacteria to swallowing up microscopic particulates of pollutants. The expulsion process can be used as a drug delivery system said the press release.