Bubbles that arise from self-organizing membranes form vessels for the chemistry that is essential to life.

How Did We Get Here?

Inquiring Scientists Want To Know

Creating a living organism from nonliving molecules is an ambitious—and long-term—scientific goal. Building an artificial cell from scratch would help to explain life’s origins—and the basic chemical and biological principles that are necessary for life. An advanced synthetic cell could optimize the production of biochemicals that are useful as drugs or fuels, or that could work in tandem with biological circuits to create highly efficient sensors.

Hybrid cells are a piece of this complex research puzzle. A multi-institutional team, headed by UC San Diego chemistry and biochemistry professor Neal Devaraj, is combining synthetic materials with biological elements to create hybrid artificial cells that mimic the form and function of natural cells. Devaraj and his colleagues from UC San Diego, Harvard University, and the University of Colorado Boulder hope to gain control of actions within the cell by replacing organizing elements of the cell with artificial constructs. Exploring the consequences of these manipulations could lead to breakthroughs in understanding how to develop and control a wholly synthetic biological “chassis” capable of interfacing with engineered biological systems.

The collaboration garnered a Multidisciplinary University Research initiative (MURI) grant from the Department of Defense (DOD) in 2013. So far, Devaraj has received more than $7 million in DOD and National Science Foundation support for his innovative work.

In an earlier noteworthy advance, Devaraj led a team of UC San Diego and Harvard chemists in producing self-assembling cell membranes, the structural envelopes that contain and support the reactions required for life. The scientists created molecules with a novel chemical reaction that joins two chains of lipids. Greasy to the touch and insoluble in water, lipids are key structural components of plant and animal cells. While nature uses complex enzymes to join the lipid chains, the Devaraj team used a simple metal ion.

The real value of this innovation might reside in its simplicity. Using commercially available materials, the scientists needed just one preparatory step to create each starting lipid chain. UC San Diego has filed a patent application for this discovery.