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World-first working eukaryotic cell made from plastic


January 15, 2014

Researchers at the Institute for Molecules and Materials at Radboud University Nijmegen used a water droplet as the structure upon which they built the first polymer cell

Researchers at the Institute for Molecules and Materials at Radboud University Nijmegen used a water droplet as the structure upon which they built the first polymer cell

Previously, chemists have managed to create artificial cell walls and developed synthetic DNA to produce self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cells. Now, for the first time, researchers have used polymers to produce an artificial eukaryotic cell capable of undertaking multiple chemical reactions through working organelles.

Eukaryotic cells are the building blocks for complex life-forms like plants and animals. The main distinction between the simpler and more ancient prokaryotic cells and eukaryotes is the presence of organelles in the latter. Organelles are specialized subunits within a cell that have a specific function, and which allow cells to undertake multiple chemical processes in an extremely small space.

This compartmentalization was one of the key features developed by nature during the early evolution of early life on Earth. It is also of interest to chemists as eukaryotic cells are capable of efficient chemistry at a very small scale, something which is difficult to replicate in the lab. That might be all about to change now chemists at Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands have built the world’s first eukaryotic cell using plastic.

“Competing groups are working closer to biology; making cells from fatty acids, for example. We would like to do the same in the future," says Professor Jan van Hest who created the organelles with his PhD candidate Ruud Peters. "Another step would be to make cells that produce their own energy supply."

The researchers used a water droplet as the structure upon which they built the polymer cell. To create the organelles, they produced tiny polystyrene-b-poly spheres filled with enzymes designed to undertake set chemical processes. These sub-micrometric nanoreactors were then encapsulated in a coating of a polymer called polybutadiene-b-poly polymersome using emulsion-centrifugation to form a cell wall.

This formed a compartmentalized structure resembling nature’s eukaryotic cell. Within this, a multistep chemical reaction was undertaken which resembled a natural enzyme pathway. Using fluorescence, van Hest and Peters were able to show a chain of chemical reactions within the cell, proof they had created a polymer cell with working organelles.

"We are also working on ways of controlling the movement of chemicals within the cell, towards organelles," says van Hest. "By simulating these things, we are able to better understand living cells. One day we will even be able to make something that looks very much like the real thing."

Their work was published in the journals Angewandte Chemie and highlighted inNature Chemistry.

Source: Radboud University Nijmegen


It's alive!! Igor, it's alive!!!!!! Paul


Now we really are starting to play god.


Scary! It all depends on the validity of the comment: "One day we will even be able to make something that looks very much like the real thing." As long as it does not actually get so close to the real thing that they are indistinguishable I imagine it will a good thing, indeed, a very good thing.

However, this could be the first step along a road, albeit a very long road, but a road of finite length nonetheless, that could take us into a very dark place. As long as we keep that in mind and keep an eye on it just in case, all should be well. Clearly anything that enables us to increase our knowledge of living cells can only be a good thing, can't it?

I am tempted to close this comment with the instruction: 'discuss'

Mel Tisdale

So, is the origin of life just the consummation of a peculiar electromagnetic bond, the last step in a logical and finite recipe? Equally, is a cell or a body just an organic machine, a set made of pieces? If it is, can machines be born and die? What is to be born or die apart from acquiring or losing certain qualitative configuration? But, is there a qualitative leap detached from raw matter-energy transformations, a sort of magical doorway that living beings go through two times? Therefore, is there a beginning or it would be as finding a cut in the material history of the universe, an infinite void that human language patches now for convenience? In the same way, is there death? If not, what are we without beginning and ending? What is life apart from knowledge and its technology? Along these lines, there is a peculiar book, a short preview in Just another suggestion in order to freethinking for a while.

Didier Newman

I think this is what scientists call "Frickin awesome, dude." My first thought is making biofuels or food proteins from wastewater, sewage, oil spills, CO2... heavy metal filtration.

Of course there will be sinister uses and well even meant ideas can go wrong. We've artificially introduced species to predate another or to act as a biological tool and cocked up ecosystems loads of times.

Chas Newport

And what is the plastic made of?

Patrick McGean

Just a matter of time now, the beginning of life will no longer be a mystery...

Michael Hissom

Just to clearify, living organisms in there most basic form are able to replicate since replication wasn't mentioned I presume it cannot. So although it mimics a cell closely and can perform it's function it's not a living organism, much like robots these days look like humans and can perform a number of the same functions they do not replicate so are not considered living.

This doesn't mean we haven't created living organisms before (we have been playing god/creator for years) it just means this is not such an example.

Regardless of it not being a living organism it is both very exciting and very cool technology with promising applications in medicine and material engineering.

Matt Fletcher

Future generations of Cylons will all commemorate this day.

Jeremy Smith

A cell can do many things this entity cannot: just to cite a few simple and quite obvious examples, turn its chemical factory towards reproduction or defense.

Thus, the claim that the scientists have "created a cell" is patently false; they have created a limited physical structure that mimics some very, very few cellular processes, and that's all.

So the claims made in the article are, IUMO, deeply misleading and wildly exaggerated.

Aside from that, it's all wonderful.

Lee van Laer

Yet another paving stone on the arguably inevitable path to Grey Goo.

Bob Ehresman

And here we thought the Nestene Consciousness was an alien being from Polymos...

Gregg Eshelman

Hmmmm....plastic artificial cell working organelles....smells like military applications in here.

Earl Martin

When "Lee van Laer" mentioned defense I thought; how the hell would a virus or bacteria going to recognize the cell if it's membrane is made of plastic?

Felix Kronqvist
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