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Synthetic cell membrane marks another step towards creation of fully artificial life forms


January 29, 2012

Chemists have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes that could help shed light...

Chemists have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes that could help shed light on the origins of life (Image: Image: Shutterstock)

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The cell membrane is one of the most important components of a cell because it separates the interior from the environment and controls the movement of substances in and out of the cell. In a move that brings mankind another step closer to being able to create artificial life forms from scratch, chemists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and Harvard University have created artificial self-assembling cell membranes using a novel chemical reaction. The chemists hope their creation will help shed light on the origins of life.

As the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms, the cell is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing. Although there are various theories - meteorites, deep-sea vents, lightning - there is still no scientific consensus regarding the origin of the first cell.

"We don't understand this really fundamental step in our existence, which is how non-living matter went to living matter," said Neal Devaraj, assistant professor of chemistry at UCSD. "So this is a really ripe area to try to understand what knowledge we lack about how that transition might have occurred. That could teach us a lot - even the basic chemical, biological principles that are necessary for life."

Cell membranes are composed of a lipid bilayer usually made mostly of phosopholids that have heads that mix easily with water and tails that repel it. When exposed to water, they arrange themselves to form a double layer with heads out and tails in, forming a barrier that sequesters the contents of the cells. Devaraj and Itay Budin, a graduate student at Harvard University, created similar molecules with a novel reaction that joins two chains of lipids.

"In our system, we use a sort of primitive catalyst, a very simple metal ion," Devaraj said. "The reaction itself is completely artificial. There's no biological equivalent of this chemical reaction. This is how you could have a de novo formation of membranes."

The process used by Deveraj and Budin to create a synthetic cell membrane

The synthetic membranes were created from a watery emulsion of an oil and detergent that is, on its own, very stable. But the chemists say that adding copper ions results in sturdy vesicles and tubules beginning to bud off the oil droplets. After 24 hours, the oil droplets are gone, having been "consumed" by the self-assembling membranes.

Although a research team from the J. Craig Venter Institute (JVCI) had previously claimed to successfully produce the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell, only its genome was artificial. To claim fully artificial life would also require a synthetic three-dimensional structure to house the information-carrying genome. Something that Deveraj says is, "trivial and can be done in a day. New people who join the lab can make membranes from day one."

Devaraj and Budin's research is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: UCSD

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick

My mad scientist radar just went crazy...

Facebook User
29th January, 2012 @ 11:08 pm PST

"Although there are various theories - meteorites, deep-sea vents, lightning - there is still no scientific consensus regarding the origin of the first cell." I think we should add intelligent design to that sentence if we are listing all of the possibilities.

30th January, 2012 @ 10:22 am PST

So we are sure there is no God that created life? I mean if a simple scientist can do it then we really have nothing to live for accept ourselves till the cells die. Great can cross that off my list of things to do, now on to do whatever I want for 40 more years.

30th January, 2012 @ 10:41 am PST

@TDINGLE. The Intelligent Design hypothesis, is only that a creator did something, not what exactly "it" did. In other words if humans managed to create life which eventually evolved intelligence and tried to figure out how it came to be. The answer: "we were made by humans", would not explain the creation process. How life came to be would still consist of steps: w material had x reaction with y and that produced z, which combined with a and the...... etc etc. So ID is not a theory on the actual origin of life mechanisms.

Aladdin Connolly
30th January, 2012 @ 11:53 am PST

@Aladdin. The creator did do something, created life on earth. Regarding "if humans managed to create life," it would also be by ID. As for the equation of (wx)y=z, try using w=meteorites, x=deep-sea vents, y=lightning produced z ( life ). It's not a bad theory, but I think we could add some cosmic rays to really get the soup cooking.

30th January, 2012 @ 01:00 pm PST

Makes me think of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", the SF story that got bastardized into the movie "Blade Runner". In the story the androids weren't robotic, they were artificially created life forms. They couldn't reproduce and had a limited lifespan.

Gregg Eshelman
30th January, 2012 @ 06:56 pm PST

One can build a motor but it will remain a dead motor without electricity. If one could build a cell - it would remain dead without life. And indisputable fact is that life can only come from life. When the life goes out - it will not come back. If the current is removed from the motor - the motor will never run again until electricity or life is connected. Life must have a source. All names are nouns except one. The name of the creator is a verb. In fact an action verb which when translated means "causes to become." Every living thing is alive because it came from a previous life form. Thus all life can be traced back to an original source. Some have gone extinct and will remain dead until the source of life returns it.

30th January, 2012 @ 08:51 pm PST

tdingle by your reckoning we should add the Tooth Fairy to the list, but no, in case you missed it we are talking about science and creationism (can you at least be honest and call it by its real name?) has nothing to do with science.

30th January, 2012 @ 11:35 pm PST

Great discussion. I was waiting for tdingle to be lambasted by a dozen posts about how ridiculous his position was. I am pleasantly surprised. For those who want to read an MIT professor expound about a different perspective on a 15 billion year old universe AND 6 - 24 hour days of creation, check out "The Science of God" by Shroeder. Very interesting. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too.

31st January, 2012 @ 04:30 am PST

@covenantfarm. Thanks.

@mcsblues. At its very essence, the creator is science. And, I do like to use creator - creationism sounds more like a God and religion. If you don't mind I want to share a brief talk I had with some biologists at a conference. I was there as IT support and I had four biologists around me getting coffee. I said "How do you guys feel about ID?" They laughed there asses off and looked at me as though I said do you believe in the Tooth Fairy. I said "Oh I don't believe in that and can't understand why anyone would." At this point I was doing a little fishing. Then I said, "Does anyone know what the smallest living thing is?" They said a few examples. I said "wow that's small, but how small is it at the atomic and molecular level?" They said it huge at that level - tens of thousands of atoms and molecules. I said "wow, how big was the first living thing? It must have been smaller than that, right." The biologists squirmed a little and one said pointedly "no one knows that answer." I said (with a really dumbfounded look), "was it ten atoms long?" Now one of them looked at me with pity in his eyes and said "my dear boy, it would be much larger than that." I then said, "Are any of you good with math? What are the odds of that happening randomly and how did it know it was alive?" At this point they got up and left. I set the hook but the fish got away.

Most people talk about the first living thing (both evolutionists and creationists) as though it's just there already - done deal, move on. I like to think about it from the atomic level - just how small was it? If it's very small the odds of it happening randomly increase, but if it big, aren't the odds in the billions or trillions to one? It might be because I loved to play Lego's when I was a kid that I imagine a Lego kit with atoms from the periodic table in it. The creator has a user guide for his kit. You don't even have someone assembling your kit. Your kit falls on the ground and randomly makes life, and if it doesn't the first time you just keep throwing your kit on the ground.

I guess what it comes down to is faith. I don't have the faith that you (and the evolutionist) have. The belief that something as incredibly improbable as randomly making life is something I just can't take on faith. I put my faith in science.

31st January, 2012 @ 10:42 am PST

tdingle - I'm not really sure what you believe. One thing is for sure is that atoms and molecules are not living. Enzymes are an example: They are not living because they are only molecules. These are only building blocks which make up every material thing. The life force that makes mater living is invisible like magnetism is invisible. How can man ever create life when it is not a tangible visible thing?

31st January, 2012 @ 02:37 pm PST

After spending trillions and trillions of dollars and billions (milliards) of man-hours on research and development we have created life in a test tube proving that life happened by chance. /snark

31st January, 2012 @ 09:23 pm PST

tdingle - "@mcsblues. At its very essence, the creator is science."

Your invisible friend is the very opposite of science.

"And, I do like to use creator - creationism sounds more like a God and religion."

You actually used the deliberate but unsuccessful fraud "ID" instead of creationism or creator - but either way you are of course talking about God (aka "the creator") and religion (ie believing in a God/creator).

As for the rest I'm not at all surprised you had biologists laugh at you and move away, but on the off chance you actually believe some of this drivel ... lets be brief;

You've (probably unwittingly) stolen Fred Hoyle's Boeing in a junk yard analogy. You should know that Hoyle wasn't suggesting it in supported of creationism, but rather Panspermia - an idea (if you actually read the article) that is still has some appeal as to how life arrived on Earth, but, and this is important ... not how life arose in the first place. The only significance being life would have had an extra 10 billion years or so to begin, before the Earth was in existence.

You go on to (mis)use probability in much the same way as other thieves of Fred's idea like Behe do in the irreducible complexity in evolution sense - but sadly for creationists everywhere, this has been (yet) another failure.

The one thing you do have in common with Fred Hoyle is that you are not even pretending to offer a solution. You say that life is too complex to arise by itself ... so you propose an infinitely more complex entity to "solve' the problem. Logic isn't your strong suit is it?

"I guess what it comes down to is faith. I don't have the faith that you (and the evolutionist) have. The belief that something as incredibly improbable as randomly making life is something I just can't take on faith. I put my faith in science."

You don't understand what science is do you?

Whilst we are still on anti science, you thank covenantfarm for his/her contribution for binging Schroeder into the conversation (for goodness sake!) I will credit you with further ignorance on what Schroeder suggests and fill in a little bit of that void too.

Schroeder's 8 year old church going son had a problem. Even he could see gaping holes between science and what is purportedly true if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible (like his Dad) So Gerald Schroeder (the Dad) then spend at least three books trying to convince his 8 year old offspring that science and the Bible could somehow be 'melded' together ... seamlessly. A tall order and I'm not sure history tells us whether he succeeded (convincing an 8 year old) but he pulled out all the stops. Dishonesty - he claims that following the lineage of one individual who worked in copper in the OT, the Bible correctly states the start of the Bronze age. Well he got the lineage wrong, and strangely decided to ignore the fact this individual like working with iron as well ... More? He tells us that of course there were human like creatures over 6000 years ago, but that Adam was the first "real" human. Convincing what? Oh yes and when the Bible talks about days ... it isn't talking about days ... And presumably when it talks about light (which arrived, ... ooh days before itty bitty things like stars were created ... well that doesn't mean 'light' either ... I could go on. I suggest you read more - if only to convince yourself just how desperate the average creationist is ... if nothing else that will reinforce your faith that you aren't one ... not really ...

31st January, 2012 @ 11:29 pm PST

mcsblues: Have you read the book (Shroeder) or are you relying on someone else's "Cliffs Notes"?

1st February, 2012 @ 04:26 am PST

Slowburn - By chance - can we get back those "trillions of dollars?"

1st February, 2012 @ 08:05 am PST

re; mcsblues

Do you eat canned food? yes [] no []

If yes you just demonstrated a firm belief that life does not just spontaneously arise and yet you still insist that life just spontaneously arose.

1st February, 2012 @ 08:06 am PST

@slowburn. I'm not sure if I follow your logic. If a bunch of scientists place non-living substances in a test tube in a controlled experiment and it becomes a living "thing," that's by intelligent design, not chance. Or was it that a plastics lab was working on a new polymer and the next day "by chance" they noticed that it wiggled and had eyes. (just joking) But really, I did a Google search on "random life has been created by chance" (I know random and chance are similar but wanted to be thorough) and I thought that the search result would be easy to find. One would think it would be front page on every news source on the planet. I didn't find it. Can you post that link?

@mcsblues. Ok. Let's be brief. For me, the creator is not: the God of Abraham, the God Zeus, or the god of the sun Ra. I don't try to figure out who the creator is, or who created the creator and so on, and so on. As for the rest of what you wrote, you're all over the place. To be brief again, not all ID believers believe in Gods and religions. We simply look at the scientific facts and say "this was by intelligent design." The issue we have is that the scientific community as a whole is intellectually dishonest to the world at large by suppressing the very idea of ID. Also, the reason the biologists walked away is the same reason the scientific community refuses to open their eyes, they have no answers - just faith. The hypocrisy is laughable.

Donwine talked about life and life force. I don't have an answer for that. It does look like mankind will "create" life at some point and then we will all start talking about if it has a soul or not. I really don't care about that. Get those scientists out of a clean lab and set them up by a thermal vent, or a meteor crater, or throw some goo down by a lightning rod - that's what we're told happened. I can't take that leap of faith and I put my trust in hard data and facts.

1st February, 2012 @ 08:22 am PST

Slowburn - By chance - can we get back those "trillions of dollars?"

1st February, 2012 @ 09:03 am PST

@slowburn. Just Googled /snark. Got it now, sarcasm. Sorry my defenses were on high alert.

1st February, 2012 @ 10:04 am PST

tdingle - I am pleased that you deal only in facts. It only takes a little research to get the real facts. The word "soul" has been misinterpreted and has caused a lot of confusion. The word literally means body. It can never leave a body because it is the body. The force that brings this body to life is called a spirit. It is an invisible force. It cannot be captured in a bottle and labeled or reused. When the spirit or life force leaves the body - the soul or body dies cell by cell. This life is very precious because it is as evasive as a memory. If you can capture a thought or idea and put it into a jar for later use - then I will believe man can start or create a life. The bottom line is to try NOT to become an elusive memory and learn more about the source of the life giver and keep your free gift of life forever.

1st February, 2012 @ 12:20 pm PST

Don't know why, but one lst time;

tdingle, it doesn't matter what you call your God/creator or whatever, you and the creationists are talking about the same thing - some sort of supernatural being that popped into existence (in Slowburn's term) "spontaneously". The fact that you don't care/want to know how this happened and think that it is enough merely say it must be so, repeatedly, with zero evidence, says it all about your own hypocrisy and attitude to science.

BUt, when you talk about ID and science's evil plan to suppress ... ummm not sure what? ... you are however attaching yourself to a specific creationist invention, this childishly transparent fraud was well and truly exposed in the Dover case as a concerted plan by a group of creationists to suppress the teaching of science in our schools. You should at the very least read the common sense judgement of Judge Jones along with the many drafts of "Of Pandas and People" before publicly backing this failed dishonest exercise.

Yes you have found some scientists who don't know all the answers - this (and I see it is still news to you) is what science is all about. The scientists in this story and many others are not looking to create artificial life in a test tube because that is how it happened, they in a quest to explore all the possible mechanisms that (a) are needed to produce life and (b) the natural conditions that existed at the time that may have given rise to this happening. In a real sense it doesn't matter how unlikely this event was (because we know the end result) but it does have some bearing as to how often it is likely to have occurred elsewhere in the universe.

Creationists (yes, yes those that believe in a "creator" ... like you) have no answer at all - they don't know/don't care, That's fine but it is a bit rich for them to complain that an alternative explanation is not probable and 'spontaneous', when their version is just as spontaneous and much, much more improbable and they can't even begin to (or care to) imagine the mechanism.

@covenantfarm Yes I have, not every dreary word, but sadly probably a great deal more than you (enough to marvel at the unexplained and un-apologised for contradictions (your "the book" is the second of three) - but feel free to raise any actual facts he might have used ...

1st February, 2012 @ 02:58 pm PST

The creator has the right to boss the created around. People have been trying to get out from under that for a very long time.

2nd February, 2012 @ 12:02 am PST


If I ever even begin to feel that I am being bossed around by your imaginary friend (or the Tooth Fairy) I will book a padded cell ... for both of us!

2nd February, 2012 @ 02:12 am PST

re; mcsblues

If you were to find a watch in a stream you would not for an instant doubt that someone made it, carried it and dropped. Yet when you see things that are by several orders of magnitude more complicated than a watch you think that they happened by chance.

2nd February, 2012 @ 12:05 pm PST

Ahh Paley (there is nothing original in the creationists pitiful arsenal) - that one is over 200 years dead! And of course now we are talking about evolution, not the origins of life, and there (as I'm sure you know) we are talking about a mechanism far, far more powerful than "chance".

2nd February, 2012 @ 12:27 pm PST

Being as this person said: "being bossed around" says it all. Darwin, Carl Marks and many more have always first looked for ways to absolve themselves and others from any servitude to a higher authority. Then they developed ideas and theories to support their independent thinking. All of these self-rulers will grasp at anything to satisfy their consciences. The truth is that any amount of facts or evidence will not turn them away from seeking their own independence. Each one of us will have to answer for our own actions.

2nd February, 2012 @ 12:59 pm PST

"watery emulsion of an oil and detergent "

Ah... so.... they made greasy soap bubbles? Yay. Yes, this is the basic makeup of cell walls, but cells need to be studded with all sorts of complex molecular machines in order to let in only the right materials and let out only the materials it doesn't need to keep. And this is just for the "bag" that the really complicated parts are held together in! Keep at it, though, guys. Remember Kepler's motto.

David Bump
20th July, 2012 @ 06:40 pm PDT
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