Researchers turn to bacteria to mimic the complex structure and function of living cells

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol has harnessed the potential of bacteria to help build complex artificial cells with lifelike functionality. They recycled the components of living bacteria; including genes, transcription-translation machinery, enzymes, and membrane lipids; into viscous micro-droplets while managing to keep most of the components active.

Amoeba-shaped bacteriogenic protocell: membrane (red boundary); nucleus (blue); cytoskeleton (red filaments); vacuole (red circle); ATP production (green). Scale bar, 5 μm. Image credit: Professor Stephen Mann and Dr Can Xu

Professor Stephen Mann from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, and the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, explained: “My colleague, Dr. Can Xu, decided to use bacteria to design a ‘proto-eukaryotic synthetic cell’. She discovered that some bacteria were captured by the droplets while others remained at the surface. She then had the idea to rupture the cells in situ and we were amazed to find that many components were captured and a membrane formed on the droplets. We realized that this simple method could provide a generic pathway to highly complex synthetic cells and thus developed the bacteriogenic approach.”

This approach was recently published in the journal Nature. The researchers showed that although some components of the bacteria were destabilized and lost when the living cells were ruptured, the key components of the bacteria remained active. Their “bacteriogenic protocells” were, for example, able to synthesize RNA and proteins via the process of gene expression.

The team went further. They structurally and morphologically remodelled the bacteriogenic protocells and obtained a complex internal organization.

Finally, to increase the self-sufficiency of the protocells, they implanted living bacteria. This resulted in increased and expanded intracellular production of ATP, molecules that carry and provide energy for many processes in living cells. The team was thus able to build living-synthetic hybrids with enhanced cellular processes.

“These results give us a research landscape full of unexplored potential that we and other groups can explore based on the methodology we have introduced to the scientific community,” added Mann.

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