Dutch researchers develop a simple technique to build containers for synthetic cell engineering

Photo Guy Ackermans

Many scientists in Europe and around the world have taken up the challenge of building cells from scratch, that is, synthetic cells. Some are trying to mimic as closely as possible the processes that occur in living cells, to understand their inner mechanisms. Others are trying to find the simplest possible way to build a system capable of performing specific tasks, similar to those of their biological counterparts, which they could use, for example, to capture pollutants in the environment or as tiny drug factories in the body.

A recent example of this second approach comes from a team at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. A key prerequisite for building synthetic cells is a three-dimensional container capable of orchestrating biochemical reactions. The research team has developed a simple and effective technique for making cell-sized porous containers that can be used for synthetic cell engineering. The method is published in ACS Synthetic Biology.

Assistant Professor Siddharth Deshpande explained: “Our containers are unconventional. Often, the structure that envelops cell-sized containers is a lipid vesicle, while we make our own with proteins and within ten minutes. Our surface, made of actin proteins, is porous with holes of five to seven nanometers and we can easily trigger protein production inside.”

An accidental discovery

The team of Ketan Ganar, Liza Leijten, and Siddharth Deshpande initially wanted to study the interactions between actin and biomolecular condensates, micron-scale, membrane-less compartments that organize elements inside biological cells.

During their experiments, they accidentally discovered that by triggering actin polymerization on the condensates, they had formed a hole in the condensate. They then decided to exploit this discovery to make porous containers from biological condensates.

The story of this discovery can be found in Resource, the magazine of Wageningen University. Read the full story