Life as we don’t know it

A pair of blue-gloved hands holds a glass bowl and a data readout.

If you were an astronaut nursing a monster headache en route to Mars, and the painkillers had run out 20 million miles back, you’d want a supply of synthetic cells handy to crank out some fresh pills.

That’s the kind of future College of Biological Sciences researcher Kate Adamala is out to build. She belongs to a growing group of researchers working on a programmable and controllable synthetic cell system.

“The research I do is like science fiction with real-life applications,” says Adamala, an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

A couple of examples reveal how synthetic cells might solve some thorny problems.

Mirror opposites 

Some small therapeutic proteins can ease pain, replace hormones, or speed up injury recovery. But in order to reach their targets inside human cells, they must run a gauntlet of enzymes that chew up “foreign” proteins.

However, the amino acid building blocks of proteins come in mirror image versions, like left and right gloves. Our bodies build proteins only from “left-handed” amino acids. Adamala’s team envisions synthetic cells that produce therapeutic proteins built from the “right-handed” form. Such proteins show promise for working just as well as the natural ones, and they might fool the enzymes long enough to allow more of a drug to get to its target.

Oily alternatives

Renewable wind and solar energy is replacing fossil fuel-based sources of electricity, but “petrochemicals” derived from fossil fuels are still needed for products like fertilizers, plastics, coatings, and gels.  

Bacteria have been engineered to make a variety of chemicals, such as acetic acid (vinegar), ethanol, precursors to morphine and a malaria drug. But they balk at making petrochemicals.

“Petrochemicals are bad for anything with an ounce of common sense,” Adamala explains. “No bacteria will make them because it will kill them.”

Unlike bacteria, which have evolved to avoid harmful chemicals, synthetic cell systems would be built without such self-preservation tendencies and so hold promise as biological chemical factories. 

Collaboration, not competition

Adamala has brought the multi-institutional community of synthetic cell researchers together for mutual support. Instead of competing, members of the Build-A-Cell network compare notes on what research practices work—or don’t. For example, by acting on information from another lab, one of her graduate students shaved months of frustration off his dissertation work. 

None of these researchers can foresee what the world of synthetic cells will ultimately look like, any more than the builders of early, room-filling computers could have foreseen the smartphone. But the science is moving fast, and with researchers like Adamala, the possibilities are endless.

Read the original story from the College of Biological Sciences (on p. 10).