A team from Imperial College London have managed to do something quite extraordinary: create artificial cells, and embed living cells within them.
Although this seems like the first step in creating some fantastical-sounding artificial, augmented lifeform, its true purpose is far more immediate and practical. Encasing them in artificial shells could allow cells to go about their business while being protected from harsh environmental conditions.
Artificial cell designs aren’t actually new. This research group, and plenty of others, have conjured up these cellular shields before. Using a variety of engineered materials, they’ve trapped a number of biological components within, including an assortment of enzymes vital to cellular processing.
The novelty of this new Scientific Reports study, then, is that for the first time, entire cells have been imprisoned within artificial ones. At the same time, enzymes present within the casing work with the living cells to produce new chemicals, one of which is a fluorescent dye that confirms the happy co-habitation to the observing researchers.
In this instance, the team fed incongruous water and oil streams through tiny channels, allowing them to create droplets of particular sizes. Painting them with an additional resilient coating, the artificial cells were complete, and their living cells – from the bacterium E. coli to lymphocytes and carcinoma specimens – were implanted within.
In order to test their resistance, the researchers dunked them in a highly concentrated copper solution, something which normally would destroy any cells that dared enter. The aforementioned fluorescent glows notified the team that all was well, and they had succeeded in creating the world’s smallest Iron Man suits.
In fact, the cells persisted for several days, and they were even able to reproduce within their snug confines.
It’s worth noting, though, that these "hybrid structures" aren’t passive avatars with high defense stats. The team’s paper explores the possibility of such things being “soft-matter microdevices”, bioengineered, bespoke creations that can perform a variety of functions.
Several other proof-of-concept studies have already shown they can be effective at delivering cancer-killing drugs. From aiding in biosensing and diagnosing medical afflictions or traits, to even synthesizing drugs – all while fending off attack from an organism’s immune system or pathogen – their potential is, as the team put it, “considerable”.
The striking comparisons to the evolution of eukaryotic life are also worth underscoring.
Such complex cells emerged from the engulfment of other forms of life: from photosynthesizing chloroplasts to energy-generating mitochondria, these were once free-living beasties, co-opted by a larger entity and transmogrified into specialized organelles.
This new study, then, represents a rather phenomenal anthropogenic parallel, with the artificial cells encapsulating living cells, which then take on the roles of organelles themselves. Clearly, time is a flat circle.