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The future of synthetic cells

Where might we see the first applications based on research synthetic cells? Six researchers provide some answers in a recent article in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology.

Synthetic cell research, also known as bottom-up synthetic biology aims to reproduce the fundamental characteristics of living systems, starting from molecular components. What should these characteristics be – the ability to grow and divide, to communicate, to move, to evolve And how should they be reconstituted – from natural or non-biological components? These questions remain open in the research community. The diversity of opinions, expertise and approaches to tackling a problem that promises to deepen our understanding of life and stimulate innovation makes this a very fascinating area of research.

The journal Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology recently interviewed a group of experts in synthetic cell research to shed light on this narrow but promising field for our society. The questions focused on the definition of a synthetic cell (spoiler alert, there is no single definition), potential applications and the advantages of synthetic cell-based technologies over bioengineered cells, i.e. reprogrammed existing living cells. Here are three things you need to know about synthetic cells, which are brilliantly explained in this article:

1. Simple synthetic cells to be used in practical applications

The prospect of building synthetic cells capable of mimicking all the complexity of real cells is interesting mainly for a purely fundamental aspect: to deepen our understanding of how life works. The use of such complex synthetic cells for practical applications does not seem necessary, nor at the stage where they will soon be applied.

Instead, the researchers interviewed believe that innovation will come from relatively simple synthetic cells, which mimic only one particular aspect of cell biology. It is these limited, non-living, cell-like systems, designed to perform specific tasks or produce specific compounds, that will be used for practical applications.

2. Synthetic cells to help us respond to current health, climate and environmental issues

What innovations are likely to result from synthetic cell research? Synthetic cells promise to have an impact on a wide range of sectors. Firstly, as a direct agent, acting, for example, as a therapeutic, sensor,  or carbon fixation tool.

Secondly, as an indirect agent: they will be involved in the production of vaccines, the synthesis of specific materials, such as those that convert light energy into chemical substances, and materials with properties similar to those of petrochemical products, helping our industries to move away from fossil fuels. For researcher Dora Tang, we could also use synthetic cells inside materials to adjust their properties.

3. Several advantages over reprogramming existing cells

The bottom-up construction of cell-like systems is a method that is often compared to the top-down approach, which consists of modifying existing living systems. The researchers interviewed see several advantages in using synthetic cells rather than bioengineered cells, i.e. modified existing cells, for potential applications:

  • They are programmable: bioengineered cells are living cells. When they are modified to perform specific tasks, they still use resources and energy for cellular processes that are unrelated to what we humans want them to do. In contrast, synthetic cells, as non-living entities, are programmable and could be designed with just the desired functionality. Programmability also means that they could provide tailor-made treatments for patients, avoiding the problem of immunological rejection.
  • They are not alive: “We are not constrained by the need to keep them ‘alive’, nor are we constrained by the use of natural building blocks,” said Yuval Elani. For Masahiro Takinoue, this also means that synthetic cells can be built in combination with electrical and digital technologies, leading to even more new technologies.

Article

Adamala, K.P., Dogterom, M., Elani, Y. et al. Present and future of synthetic cell development. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol (2023).

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