Made In California: Everlasting Cells

Scientists have developed the first synthetic cells that can reproduce themselves -- over and over.
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science) -- California is huge in many ways -- the biggest movies come out of Hollywood, the biggest tech companies call Silicon Valley home, the best American wines come from Napa Valley, and the world's tallest trees can be found among the skyscraping strands of giant coastal redwoods. But not all great things in California are huge. Sometimes greatness can be found in the tiniest of places -- like a tiny, piddly petri dish at the University of California, San Diego. Scientists have developed the first synthetic cells that can reproduce themselves -- over and over and over.

“So there's been some really elegant work done by numerous researchers that have shown that they can create synthetic cells that can reproduce. But what typically happens is that reproduction ability is short lived. And after maybe a few reproductions, these synthetic cells stop doing that,” said Neal Devaraj, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego.

“And that's something that our group was really interested in pursuing, is can we create a synthetic cell that could continually reproduce if fed the appropriate food essentially,” said Devaraj.

“I think one of the really exciting and sort of key points about our work, is that if you feed them the right type of food, they will basically continually reproduce,” said Devaraj.

“And so, one really key thing about our synthetic cells is that the catalyst has the ability to self-reproduce as well. And so, as you make more and more synthetic cells, the catalyst reproduces and replenishes itself. And for that reason, the synthetic cells can reproduce indefinitely,” said Devaraj.

“So if you look at current living cells, we look at mammalian cells or bacterial cells, and look at them divide, it's a very beautiful, clean process, and it will literally make two identical copies, more or less of itself. And you can witness that. And it's well-orchestrated,” explained Devaraj.

Real-Life Cells vs. Lab-Grown Cells

“Our systems are much, much, much, much simpler. And so, it's actually, you know, to be very frank about it, it's kind of a mess. All sorts of stuff is happening. These membranes are blebbing, and little bits are coming off here and there. Some of them are big. Some of them are small. And so, it looks kind of like a very, like a frenzy essentially, of these lipid membranes sprouting off of each other,” said Devaraj.                                                                                                 


“Often I get a question, well, what are the applications? And we're still a long way off from that because I think sometimes some of us in the field, we joke that what we're making is not life. It's limping life. It's not really -- it doesn't really have those amazing properties that we see authentic, living cells have,” said Devaraj.

Why Synthetic Cell Research?

“One reason we are interested in this area of research, that's very, very fundamental is [we] want to gain understanding. So, it's still a virtual black box trying to understand how did cells come about in the very first place? I mean what were the basic principles, chemical and physical, that led to sets of nonliving molecules becoming something that we call life? And one way that we think that we can really truly understand the systems, is if we can build them from the bottom up,” concluded Devaraj.

The tiny world of growing cells in a lab is moving forward and may eventually get bigger -- maybe even California large.

Filed under
Author Bio & Story Archive

Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.