Towards synthetic cells

A new technique now allows the fully automatic preparation of cell-like compartments

October 16, 2017

In studying cellular processes and interactions, for example in connection with many diseases, model systems play a central role. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for medical Research in Heidelberg, as part of the Max Planck Society’s initiative MaxSynBio, have now succeeded in developing a method for the rapid automatic synthesis of large quantities of cell-like compartments that can be loaded quantitatively on demand with diverse cell and synthetic molecular components. The stability under natural conditions makes them especially useful on future clinical research and possible applications.

Synthetic cells, such as GUVs (giant unilamellar vesicles) are invaluable as the starting point for model systems of diverse cellular processes, in health and disease. They are cell-like particles formed from selected fatty acids. Manufacturing them presents many challenges, including chemical and mechanical instability, inadequate and uncontrollable permeability, and lack of techniques for loading them. The technique which the researchers at the MPI have now developed provides solutions to many of these problems.

Manipulation and full automation

The method allows the construction of a new type of ‘droplet-stabilized GUVs’ using microfluidics in a water in oil system. These dsGUVs are first stabilized in an automated process in large water drops of surfactants. Whereas the loading was hitherto by hand, the present particles can be loaded automatically by picoinjection of up to 1000 cell-like compartments per second. Precisely defined amounts of, for example, transmembrane proteins or other components can be added, either simultaneously or consecutively, so that the exact composition and nature of the vesicles can thus be controlled very specifically.

From oil into water

The vesicles can then then be transferred, without losing their mechanical and chemical stability, to an aqueous medium, where their biologically relevant functional properties could also be studied. This transfer to a more or less natural medium is essential for their usefulness in further research. Thus, the vesicles can be used to test interactions with signal molecules, the extracellular matrix, others cells or viruses.

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