Kendall Powell in Nature:
There were just eight ingredients: two proteins, three buffering agents, two types of fat molecule and some chemical energy. But that was enough to create a flotilla of bouncing, pulsating blobs — rudimentary cell-like structures with some of the machinery necessary to divide on their own. To biophysicist Petra Schwille, the dancing creations in her lab represent an important step towards building a synthetic cell from the bottom up, something she has been working towards for the past ten years, most recently at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany. “I have always been fascinated by this question, ‘What distinguishes life from non-living matter?’” she says. The challenge, according to Schwille, is to determine which components are needed to make a living system. In her perfect synthetic cell, she’d know every single factor that makes it tick.
Researchers have been trying to create artificial cells for more than 20 years — piecing together biomolecules in just the right context to approximate different aspects of life. Although there are many such aspects, they generally fall into three categories: compartmentalization, or the separation of biomolecules in space; metabolism, the biochemistry that sustains life; and informational control, the storage and management of cellular instructions. The pace of work has been accelerating, thanks in part to recent advances in microfluidic technologies, which allow scientists to coordinate the movements of minuscule cellular components. Research groups have already determined ways of sculpting cell-like blobs into desired shapes; of creating rudimentary versions of cellular metabolism; and of transplanting hand-crafted genomes into living cells. But bringing all these elements together remains a challenge.