Researchers create artificial 'lego cells' that can detect and fight bacteria

The cells are equipped with molecules that seek out unique signatures on bacterial cells

Researchers have successfully created “artificial cells” that can sense and attack harmful bacteria.

The study, conducted by researchers at University of California, Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering, was published on 29 August in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

“We engineered artificial cells from the bottom-up, like Lego blocks, to destroy bacteria,” said Dr Cheemeng Tan, lead author of the study to university press.

The artificial cells were created using purified components of all cells — DNA, proteins and metabolites. The cell wall was built using liposomes, which are small, spherical structures made from molecules of fat that enclose a drop of water. These liposomes are now a commonly used tool to deliver drugs, nutrients or DNA therapies into cells.

"We demonstrated that artificial cells can sense, react and interact with bacteria, as well as function as systems that both detect and kill bacteria with little dependence on their environment," Tan said to University Press.

The “lego cells”, as the researchers describe it, mimic most of the essential functions and features of living cells.

Representational image. Fotolia

Representational image. Fotolia

What gives away their synthetic nature are two important features of living cells, which these cells lack: a normal lifespan, and the ability to divide and reproduce.

The engineered artificial cells are equipped with molecules that can respond to unique signatures on the cells of E. coli bacteria. When tested in laboratory experiments, these artificial cells were able to detect, attack and destroy bacterial cells.

Artificial cells, Tan sayswere previously only grown in nutrient-rich environments, which is not a requirement for the cells they have engineered.

By optimising the engineered cells membranes, cell plasma and genetic circuits, the researchers have reduced the dependence of these artificial cells on water and stable environmental conditions.

This makes these cells a lot more robust and versatile in their applications than predecessors.

According to the study, these cells have many potential uses include antibacterial therapy where it could be infused into patients to treat infections. It could also find applications in drug delivery to target bacterial infections, and as a component in biosensor, to measure a biological signal from the body.

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