Synthetic cells communicate with organic cells

Microscopic image of the synthetic cells. Pink is protein, cyan is membrane stai
Microscopic image of the synthetic cells. Pink is protein, cyan is membrane staining. Photo: Marleen van Stevendaal

Marleen van Stevendaal has researched how communication between synthetic cells and living tissue can be controlled using chemokines.

Many things are already possible when it comes to mimicking organic cells. For example, Jan van Hest’s group has developed a synthetic cell platform in which all kinds of cell aspects can be mimicked in order to better understand them. With her background in cell biology and biochemistry, Marleen van Stevendaal wanted to investigate whether it was possible for these synthetic cells to communicate with organic cells. In her thesis, she describes how she succeeded in this.

For decades, researchers have been fascinated by the question of what constitutes life. As a result, the definitions of living tissue and organisms are constantly improving. For instance, the smallest forms of life are cells, which are made up of different compartments. In addition, these are able to produce energy, multiply and communicate with the environment. To better understand these phenomena, researchers are trying to create living cells from the very smallest building blocks. This means putting individual building blocks together like Lego to mimic cellular characteristics.

In her PhD research in the Bio-Organic Chemistry group, Marleen van Stevendaal focused on developing synthetic cells that can cooperate well with living tissue. This cooperation could make it possible to eventually apply synthetic cells to the targeted delivery of signaling molecules, for example. In addition, this research enhances our understanding of how organic tissue communicates at a fundamental level.

First and foremost, good communication requires that the synthetic cells not be harmful to living cells. Furthermore, they must have a communication system through which living cells can respond and modify their behavior. Finally, it must be possible to incorporate the synthetic cells into the complex environment of living cells and tissues.

Cell platform

-I did several internships during my bachelor’s and master-s, including an internship with Jan van Hest (professor of Bio-Organic Chemistry and director of the institute ICMS ). Some research was purely chemical, while in others I worked with living cells. During my PhD, I wanted to connect those worlds,- says van Stevendaal. -I wanted to develop a synthetic cell platform that meets the criteria for cooperation with living cells. A cell platform means that we have a basic method with which we can mimic different types of cell aspects with exactly the properties we are looking for.

-The platform that we use for this is based on phase-separating polymers that form droplets called coacervates. First, we investigated how the use of structure and materials and the construction of these synthetic cells affect the viability of different cell types. We found that we had to remove the free polymers in the synthetic cells to prevent them from becoming toxic. But it was nice to find that the synthetic cells themselves did not harm the living cells.-

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