Scientists have long been toiling to create artificial life, managing to produce man-made cell walls and even synthetic DNA. But now a team of chemists has produced a functioning cell made from polymers.
This is the first ever eukaryotic cell — that just means it contains a nucleus and other sub-units known as organelles within its membrane — to be made from plastic. Eukaryotic cells are the fundamental building blocks of all complex life, making up plants and animals, and their organelles allow them to perform specialist functions which vary from cell to cell.
Using a water droplet as a base structure, researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands inserted tiny polystyrene spheres filled with enzymes to fill the role of organelles and nucleus, then encapsulated the whole things in a coating of a polymer called polybutadiene-b-poly polymersom, in place of a cell wall.
The result is a compartmentalized structure which resembles a real cell. But, best of all, it's actually capable of performing multi-step chemical processes, just like a normal cell within you or me. In this instance, a cascade of chemical reactions eventually sees the cell glow in the dark — providing proof that it's actually working. Similar results have been achieved using lipids before, but these polymer-based cells are more resilient.
It may not sound like too big a deal, but it's a great achievement, not just for synthetic biology but for chemistry too. Because cells are so incredibly efficient at performing chemical processes, it's hoped that developments like this will allow chemists to develop new, small-scale techniques which could be used to drive everything from artificial photosynthesis to biofuel production. Not bad for a little lump of plastic. [Nature Chemistry via Gizmag]