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Scientists are making headway in discovering how to build synthetic cells. Asking what makes a cell able to support essential processes has been key to the progress that has been made in this area over the last two decades. Developments have been made at an accelerated pace, and now we have increased our understanding of the function of nanodroplets.
Organizations across the globe are backing this type of research, with millions of dollars being invested in projects in this field over recent years. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) launched its first synthetic cell project last year, with a funding of $10 million. The European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies made synthetic cell building part of their proposal for a 2020 Flagship scheme, with the potential of receiving €1 billion in funding. With the progress being made, we can expect to see artificial cells in under a decade.
After determining how to create synthetic cells, getting them to exist in the necessary shapes, discovering how to generate metabolic activity and how to import genetic information within the cell, researchers have found that they have one more hurdle to clear. To create a fully functional synthetic cell, all of these components need to be brought together. While they have been perfected in isolation, collaborating all their discoveries has proven to be a challenge.
Creating Cell Membranes
The next step is to develop a method to create cell membranes that function as they do in living cells. Membranes are the essential component that surrounds the contents of the cells and facilitates the behavior of the cell. Until recently, scientists have been having trouble creating the membranes to make the cells function properly.
The breakthrough came with the discovery of the role of nanodroplets in the lifecycle of the cell. Previously, it was thought that the formation of ‘micelles' was the initial step in the creation of biological membranes. ‘Micelles’ are tiny spherical structures made up of amphiphilic molecules, which have heads that bond with water and tails that are repelled by it. This structure creates a phospholipid bilayer, and it is critical to a cell's ability to function.
However, it was recently discovered that the formation of nano-droplets is, in fact, the first stage that precedes micelle creation.
Formation of Nanoparticles
Nanoparticles form when there is a high concentration of amphiphilic molecules in water. At the border, when the concentration of molecules drops, the amphiphilic molecules come together and eventually form a sphere. This formation then creates cylinders, and finally, a closed membrane is created, forming an enclosed nano-droplet.
Recent research has been able to prove this module of cell creation through modeling it with computer simulations and then using a form of electron microscopy to confirm it.
The implications of this discovery are significant. With this knowledge, scientists will be able to develop artificial membranes - the final barrier to generating completely synthetic cells. Once developed, the applications for this will be vast.
Medicine will be one area that will be a particular focus. With this technology will come the evolution of nanomedicine, where innovations in the delivery of medicine by encasing them in liposomes may provide better ways to treat illnesses such as cancer.
Given the speed at which understanding of this area of science is evolving, we can expect to see the first steps forward in nanomedicines within a decade.