Researchers have made a breakthrough in developing artificial cells that can mimic biological cells for next-generation biotechnology innovations.

Scientists at Imperial College London have invented artificial cells that can respond to a chemical change in their environment, which is critical to behaving like real human cells do, researchers said.

artificial cells, senses, chemical responses, Imperial College London, human cells, proteins
Imperial College London scientists have created artificial cells that mimic biological cells by responding to a chemical change in their surroundings. (Image source: Imperial College London)

“We are trying to discover the smallest number of biochemical components–lipids, proteins etc.–necessary to build artificial cells capable of functions such as movement, replication, and responding to their environment,” James Hindley, a research postgraduate in the college’s Department of Chemistry, explained to Design News. “Building such structures provides insight into the development of the first cellular organisms as well as creating tools that can be applied across biotechnology.”

Responding to chemical changes is an integral function of biological cells; however, this behavior has been difficult to mimic in artificial cells because these responses are inherently complex, researchers said.

Biological cells uses these chemical responses for a variety of purposes–including to create proteins, boost energy production, communicate with other cells, or send signals to other parts of the body, such as pain impulses.

Reducing Complexity

While the response of biological cells to chemicals is generally quite complex, the Imperial College team approached this problem in a more simple way to achieve responsiveness in artificial cells, Hindley said.

They did this by creating truncated version of a pathway found in nature, which avoids the need to take into account some of the elements cells use in natural systems, researchers said. In doing so, they use artificial cells and elements from different natural systems to make a shorter, more efficient pathway to response that produces the same results, they said.

“Our approach is inspired by signaling cascades used in biology; by building artificial pathways from biochemical ‘parts,’ we can create responsive cell mimics using a ‘plug-and-play’ approach, which has been unexplored to date,” Hindley explained to Design News.

Specifically, researchers created cells that sense calcium ions and respond by fluorescing, or glowing. Within these cells, the membrane pores and the enzymes activated by calcium are from existing biological systems—for example, the enzyme is taken from bee venom.

While these elements are natural, they normally would not be found in the same environment in nature, researchers said. This mixing of elements that don’t typically exist together—thus adding an external element into an existing biological system–is one benefit of using artificial cells to create chemical responses, they said.

The team published a paper on their work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Future Biomedical Uses

The cells Hindley and his team designed could have a number of uses in biomedical and biotechnology applications, he told us.

One is that they could be used to sense changes in the body and respond by releasing drug molecules—such as by sensing a chemical signal from a cancer and releasing appropriate medications in response, Hindley said. They also could be used to sense and remove harmful metals in the environment, he said.

While simplicity is key to the work researchers already have done, they plan to continue their work by adding more complexity as they go, Hindley told us.

“Moving forward, we aim to use this bottom up approach to construct artificial cells that introduce more complex behaviors seen in cells, from motility to decision making,” he told Design News.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.