Alan Turing devised his famous “Turing Test” in 1950 to see if a machine could trick a person into thinking it was human. While it’s yet to be beaten by a machine, scientists have just done the biological equivalent – creating artificial cells that tricked bacteria into thinking they were alive.
The research, published in ACS Central Science, was led by Sheref S. Mansy of the University of Trento in Italy. They constructed nanoscale lipid vessels, and cultured them with bacteria – specifically Vibrio fischeri, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and E. coli.
When they did this, they found that the artificial cells expressed certain genes in response to the bacteria. In other words, they were chemically communicating by glowing and released chemical signals to respond, with the bacteria thinking they were talking to real cells. Thus, it might be possible to one day make artificial cells that can interact with the human body.
"We felt that we were well positioned to put together artificial cells that could engage in two-way chemical communication with bacteria, i.e. artificial cells that could be used in a cellular version of a Turing Test," Mansy told ResearchGate. "We also realized that the cellular Turing Test could be used to quantify how life-like the artificial cells are."
The researchers found that their artificial cells were able to sense the molecules that the bacteria naturally secreted, and respond in a life-like manner. They’re hoping to next build different kinds of artificial cells, and use the same test with bacteria to test out how life-like they are.
There were limitations, however, namely that only one of the bacterium species was able to engage in a “full cycle of listening and speaking” with the artificial cells, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS).
But it’s certainly promising, not least for the prospect of artificial cells being used one day in a range of functions. The first synthetic cells were only made back in 2010, so it’s been a good leap forward since then.