Studying programmable chain reactions in synthetic cell-like structures
If the chemicals in our cells were to suddenly slosh together, life’s careful processes would be lost in uncontrolled – and probably explosive – chaos. Instead, we rely on membranes – biological barriers that bound cells and the tiny organelles inside, allowing these miniature compartments to mix their contents only when the time is right. Similar mechanics lie behind patterns of nerve signals, our blood circulation and metabolism. This artificial compartment pictured is full of thousands of tiny round protocells, each surrounded by an artificial membrane and packed with chemicals. By filling groups of protocells with different chemicals, researchers experiment with programmable chain reactions, where synthetic enzymes, known as synzymes, trigger reactions. Working in a way similar to chemical pathways inside living cells, perhaps they will inspire new means of guiding the release of drugs into our cells and tissues.
Written by John Ankers
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