Synthetic Biology: Artificial Cells Built From Silicon

A microfluidic cell copies some basic functions of life, MIT Technology Review reports. In a step toward sophisticated artificial cells, scientists have engineered a silicon chip that can produce proteins from DNA, the most basic function of life. The system, though relatively simple, suggests a path to mimicking life with partly manufactured components.

The new technology was described in a Science paper in August by an international collaboration led by Roy Bar-Ziv, a materials scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This research may, in the future, help advance the synthesis of such things as fuel, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the production of enzymes for industrial use, to name a few.

Scientists say the chips could be used to test new genetic constructs before they’re put into actual cells, like bacteria. Timothy Lu, a synthetic biologist at MIT, says:

If I can rapidly prototype these designs outside of cells and then just select the best few to put into cells, it could speed up the process.

Lego Bricks to Build Living Organisms

With the artificial cell system, according to Bar-Ziv, one can, in principle, encode anything:

Genes are like Lego in which you can mix and match various components to produce different outcomes; you can take a regulatory element from E. coli that naturally controls gene X, and produce a known protein; or you can take the same regulatory element but connect it to gene Y instead to get different functions that do not naturally occur in nature.

Bio GearsSynthetic biology is an interdisciplinary science, combining disciplines such as biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology and biophysics. It can be defined as designing and constructing biological devices and biological systems for useful purposes, using artificial components not found in naturally evolved organic biological systems, Lego bricks to build living organisms.

Also read: A Lego Mindstorms Body Powered by a Worm’s Mind

The next step, says Bar-Ziv, is to create more complex patterns and larger networks. He hopes to be eventually able to control hundreds of different genes in thousands of artificial cells at once, allowing them to communicate with and influence one another, not unlike in a living organism. That’s still far, he admits:

Going from one transistor to billions didn’t happen in a day.

Images from Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.