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By msmash from Slashdot's pushing-the-limits department:
November 09 '18 at 09:10 AM
Built from the bottom up, synthetic cells and other creations are starting to come together and could soon test the boundaries of life. From a report: Researchers have been trying to create artificial cells for more than 20 years -- piecing together biomolecules in just the right context to approximate different aspects of life. Although there are many such aspects, they generally fall into three categories: compartmentalization, or the separation of biomolecules in space; metabolism, the biochemistry that sustains life; and informational control, the storage and management of cellular instructions. The pace of work has been accelerating, thanks in part to recent advances in microfluidic technologies, which allow scientists to coordinate the movements of minuscule cellular components. Research groups have already determined ways of sculpting cell-like blobs into desired shapes; of creating rudimentary versions of cellular metabolism; and of transplanting hand-crafted genomes into living cells. But bringing all these elements together remains a challenge. [...] Research groups have made big strides recreating several aspects of cell-like life, especially in mimicking the membranes that surround cells and compartmentalize internal components. That's because organizing molecules is key to getting them to work together at the right time and place. Although you can open up a billion bacteria and pour the contents into a test tube, for example, the biological processes would not continue for long. Some components need to be kept apart, and others brought together. "To me, it's about the sociology of molecules," says Cees Dekker, a biophysicist also at Delft University of Technology. For the most part, this means organizing biomolecules on or within lipid membranes. Schwille and her team are expert membrane-wranglers. Starting about a decade ago, the team started adding Min proteins, which direct a bacterial cell's division machinery, to sheets of artificial membrane made of lipids. The Mins, the researchers found, would pop on and off the membranes and make them wave and swirl1. But when they added the Mins to 3D spheres of lipids, the structures burst like soap bubbles, says Schwille. Her group and others have overcome this problem using microfluidic techniques to construct cell-sized membrane containers, or liposomes, that can tolerate multiple insertions of proteins -- either into the membranes themselves or into the interior.