The Blueprint for an Artificial Cell

The Blueprint for an Artificial Cell

It isn’t such a good idea to try to build a house without a set of blueprints to guide the construction. The same goes for building cells. That’s why a team of synthetic biologists from Rockefeller University recently published the blueprint for the artificial cell project, a research program aiming to design a synthetic cell from “scratch.”1

Researchers associated with this program are trying to make a viable synthetic cell, from the bottom up. They aren’t the only ones. Synthetic biologists from around the world are taking part in the quest to make artificial cells from scratch, but each research group is using different types of components. While some teams use novel materials, the Rockefeller University team is using the basic ingredients that make up cells in nature.

Several different research teams have already achieved a number of important milestones, including the group from Rockefeller University. (I discuss some of these milestones in my new book, Creating Life in the Lab.) In the process a number of significant hurdles have been uncovered as well. Instead of using a hit-and-miss approach to work around these impediments, the Rockefeller University synthetic biologists have proposed a comprehensive strategy to guide the creation of artificial cells.

The Rockefeller University scientists recognized a close correspondence between a cell’s operation and a von Neumann self-replicating automaton. This recognition forms the basis for their strategy to assemble an artificial cell. The objective is to assemble a protocell, using pieces taken from the cell, so that it has the same components as a von Neumann self-replicating automaton.

This automaton, like a cell, is capable of reproducing itself exactly. This conceptual entity consists of four components:

  1. a universal constructor that makes a copy of the offspring;
  2. a set of instructions for the constructor’s work;
  3. a copier that duplicates the instructions for the offspring; and
  4. a controller that controls both the universal constructor and the copier.

In the cell, the transcription/translation system functions as the universal constructor; DNA as the instructions; the DNA replication apparatus as the copier; and the genetic regulatory system as the controller.

The researchers noted that, in addition to these four parts, an artificial cell must include components that aren’t part of the von Neumann automaton. An artificial cell requires metabolic processes that involve the uptake of materials and energy from the environment and the expulsion of unwanted by-products. The synthetic cell also needs a mechanism to reproduce the boundary separating its interior from the exterior environment. Finally, the exterior environment must be large enough for waste to diffuse away from the cell and include a fine-tuned composition of building block materials (such as amino acids, nucleotides, etc.) so that the artificial cell can be “fed.”

This blueprint for an artificial cell has already proved useful. The synthetic biologists from Rockefeller University have used it to assess the progress made by their lab (as well as other research groups) to generate precursors to artificial cells. This evaluation exposes current hurdles and suggests possible ways around these problems.

One of the most striking features of the artificial cell program is the extensive knowledge about the structure and operation of biochemical systems needed to develop the blueprint. It is also readily apparent how having a master strategy in place is critical for the success of this research endeavor. In other words, the generation of an artificial cell depends on the understanding and ingenuity of the researchers. That is, the creation of life in the lab requires intelligent agents to guide and carry out the process.

Does it make sense that undirected evolutionary mechanisms could generate life when the creation of artificial cells requires the involvement of researchers to come about? In light of this requirement, it is only reasonable to conclude that life’s origin also requires the work of a Creator.

  1. Vincent Noireaux, Yusuke T. Maedab, and Albert Libchaber, “Development of an Artificial Cell, from Self-Organization to Computation and Self-Reproduction,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108, no. 9 (March 1, 2011): 3473–80.