University lab working to develop synthetic life

Artificial cells made in a laboratory could be used to study diseases that kill natural cells, or test drugs more effectively.

Keaton Schmitt

Man-made molecules that mimic cells but aren’t alive could be used to study illnesses that kill natural life.

A University of Minnesota lab wants to use simplified versions of cells — more resilient than natural ones — to study dangerous diseases in detail, test new drugs or even define life on other planets. The project began last month.

When researchers try to study how diseases work, they often infect cells with a disease in a controlled environment such as a petri dish, said Kate Adamala, University genetics, cell biology and development assistant professor and head of the lab working on the project.

But because these cells are alive and taken from the body, the cell will kill the disease and not let it reproduce, she said.

Cells created in a lab lack this natural defense and instead absorb and reproduce any DNA they are given — even that of a disease, Adamala said. This cuts down on factors that could impair more traditional disease studies.

“That’s why biology is really difficult. It’s hard to separate processes and study one single thing,” she said.

The artificial cells let researchers study the disease longer and in its later stages, Adamala said. They also don’t reproduce which can make the experiment easier to manage.

Researchers can see diseases’ progression using fluorescent dyes that attach to proteins or other molecules which can then be tracked by machines, said Aaron Engelhart, University genetics, cell biology and development assistant professor and collaborator on the project.

Those fluorescent chemicals don’t work in all cases, Engelhart said, and often have trouble in living cells. If the dyes were used on diseases in synthetic cells, researchers could learn more.

“In a lot of these [diseases] a lot of work’s been done, but because some of these tools weren’t available until recently, it’s been difficult to track [them],” Engelhart said.

Synthetic cells could also be used to speed up drug testing. Normally, when researchers test drugs they have trouble isolating the effects of the drugs from the cell’s normal work.

Engelhart said the simpler synthetic cells have less interference from normal cell parts, making a drug’s effects easier to see.

Other drugs seem fine in small tests but have side effects in live models that make them useless, Adamala said. Screening these drugs earlier in synthetic cells could save a lot of research time.

“There’s literally thousands of new drugs in the pipeline every year but in the market there’s one or two,” she said. “And the reason is they get to live … testing and we discover side effects we had no idea about before.”

The created cells could also help scientists determine whether material on other planets is alive or not, Adamala said.

There’s no definition of what constitutes living material, said Jim Cotner, a university, ecology, evolution and behavior professor.

“Basically something’s alive if it can replicate … metabolize and pass genetic material on,” Cotner said.

But Adamala said making fake life with different traits gives scientists examples they can’t find in nature and making a simple cell model now might show researchers how life first began.