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The artificial cell, evolving
“It’s like putting a drop of vinegar in oil,” says physicist Albert Libchaber, about the process of creating a self-contained artificial bioreactor the size of a single cell.
Libchaber, the university’s Detlev W. Bronk Professor and head of the Laboratory of Experimental Condensed Matter Phsyics, and Vincent Noireaux, a postdoc in his lab, began the process of building their own “minimal cell” about a year ago, when they successfully expressed proteins in synthetic vesicles.
Now they’ve taken a commonly used compound known as a phospholipid to make an emulsion oil-extract (the cellular extract being the vinegar). Synthetic vesicles with a cell-free expression system inside are created when the emulsion droplets are centrifuged into an aqueous background solution. The background solution is the energy source for gene expression of a small genetic network borrowed from the Escherichia coli bacterium, and the lipid layer they created serves as a membrane to contain extract. The scientists used a toxin derived from the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium to poke holes in the membrane, creating artificial pores through which small molecules can pass.
Under these conditions, the vesicle’s genetic apparatus produced protein products for up to four days, the scientists report in the December 21 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They even made their vesicle membrane more “intelligent” by binding proteins to the membrane with short peptides.
Applications for the project include biosensors and cellular delivery. “Eventually we might be able to send a vesicle to a cancer cell, where, if recognized, it could produce a drug that would destroy the cell,” Libchaber explains.

January 28, 2005



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