Cells at Work

Watch: Artificial cells master a process once only done by the living

No mitochondria, but still a powerhouse.

Sacanna Lab, NYU

The lives of cells are remarkably simple and complex at the same time.

Each of the trillions of cells in your body completes pretty much the same programmed tasks all day.

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But it’s also really hard to create artificial, microscopic cells that can do the same things as living ones. This is because of their complex, acutely balanced ecosystems.

This week a team of researchers from New York University actually created a working cell model from completely synthetic materials.

They described their creation in a September 8 report in the journal Nature.

Sacanna Lab, NYU

Made of a polymer, this spherical cell membrane mimics a red blood cell. It can store and move microscopic materials across the membrane when activated by light.

Sacanna Lab, NYU

Sacanna Lab, NYU

Other cell models have made headlines in recent years, but what makes this one unique is its ability to pump materials in and out of the cell — a process called active transport.

Let’s take it back to high school biology class really quick:

Mitochondria, the powerhouse of living cells, makes a chemical called ATP. That energy gives the cell the ability to move molecules in and out of the cell during active transport.

Sacanna Lab, NYU

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But in this synthetic model, light-sensitive chemicals react to their surroundings and can either push or pull particles through a small hole in the artificial membrane.


Here’s what it looks like when the model cell reacts to light:

Sacanna Lab, NYU


The researchers tested these artificial models in water, where they sucked up microscopic particles.

This could potentially be a way to clean out pollutants from lakes, rivers, or drinking water.

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“Think of the cell [models] like the PAC-MAN video game — they go around eating the pollutants and removing them from the environment.”

Sacanna Lab, NYU

The synthetic models could also help clean bacteria from the body or deliver drugs to certain areas — thanks, in part, to their uncanny resemblance to real ones.

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