How biologists are creating life-like cells from scratch

Nov 7, 2018

By Kendall Powell

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.

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16 comments on “How biologists are creating life-like cells from scratch

  • “We play with nanofabrication techniques and do things a normal cell biologist would never do,” he says. “But a strange biophysicist like me can do this.”

    I love this playful approach to the problem. Understanding the behaviours of the various components will be key to conceptualising the most likely abiogenetic processes.

    Lots to think about here.

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  • Is this the same?

    I find some of the language used can confuse. One part says the structure can “sense” the food added. Would “ attracted to” be better because it works better at my level of understanding. I appreciate that this might in fact be the first signs of “sensing” but it is too early to say that? I only ask because (again , at my level) I have found my progress in understanding impeded by wrong phrases being used in the past.

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  • This is a lovely find, Ollie.

    Sense does seem odd yet sensors can be electronic devices. They transduce energy of one sort to another to be used eventually for an action. These blobs use chemical energy to release immediately other sorts of chemical energy to create movement. They are chemo-tactile.

    The TED guy is mostly a chemist of Italian and US universities. My guy of the quote is a Dutch professor very much a structuralist, previously working on carbon nanotubes and the main subject of the article is a widely published cell biologist from Germany perhaps ideally placed to combine the work of the other two.

    What they are doing is exactly right, to find these “looks like life” functions.

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  • Phil #3

    With your explanation of sensing, I now want to ask if we still use this primitive sensing device or has this cell evolved further. Or, has the rest of the system evolved/been added to that translates it into what we call sensing today?

    Don’t know if you watched the next video in line? I asked Alan, a while back, if I could safely use the sentence, “if conditions are right for life then there will be life” but he quite rightly said it was circular thinking and I understood why but, isn’t that what this guy is saying?

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  • Ollie.

    All sensing is transduction of energy forms and is little different from video camera to eye. What is different is the smarts of the meta data extracted from the primary data. For eyes the extraction in the visual cortex of the meta data of line segments corresponding to edges where brightness transitions are sudden, begins the process of accumulating smarts, Then the extraction of meta data from the meta data of line segments that nearly form a closed loop and over a period of time morphing defining a body of some sort moving. Sometimes the moving of an almost outline confirms the outline. A sensor producing sensory data is dumb. A light dark sensor, an ocellus in a primitive sea creature is dumb until it attaches neurons that detect light changes of a particular speed indicating an overhead predator passing by and learning to hold still for a while to defeat the “smarter” predator eye looking for a tasty sea squirt.

    The chap in the video this time was telling a hugely important story very badly with badly developed and unexplained metaphors.

    On this site about ten years ago we had a discussion here agreeing that we needed to push the idea of evolution back into the the very beginning of abiogenesis. In a heat flux local entropy can be reversed materials may order themselves, like the convection cells in a pan of hot water, but the heat flux needs to be like thus and so. The water depth such as to make cells of minimised boundary area…. These entropy reversals will be the most efficient possible from available opportunities. They will deliver the smallest temperature drop from flux input to flux output, favouring themselves and denying all other processes that need larger temperature drops.

    Life delivers a pretty small temperature drop. In inventing super evolvability with RNA and DNA delivering process plans and super duper evolvability from mental plans its very likely to be the thing to hog the heat flux should the initial conditions be sufficient….

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  • Thanks O’Hool. Nice T-shirt slogan. “Hog the Flux!”

    I try not to hog the flux though. In preserving our own localised low entropy organisation we do tend to make a greater mess around us. Better than non-life physics we speed the universe to its heat death.

    The moral physicist says, “Share the flux”.

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  • Ollie,

    We will have new senses. Currently they are temporary prosthetics like all my test equipment. We adapt so quickly and build a great sense of internality to our experiences. Driving the car feels wired in even.

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  • q


    Peddle dalek! (Our cognitions are situated. We become the machine to an astonishing degree.)

    Myself I’m Davros.

    Aging and losing faculties (and peddle power. 22 miles per day is too much now) is to feel renewed by my assistant machines. My smart phone takes over from my hippocampus in recollection mode working in a surprisingly similar way. It is no less me, making those associative queries.

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