Scientists have made a groundbreaking discovery by creating artificial cells that mimic the behavior of living cells. This significant advancement, detailed in the journal Nature Chemistry, was achieved by Ronit Freeman, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill), along with her team. By manipulating DNA and proteins—the foundational elements of life—they crafted cells with the appearance and functionality of natural cells. This pioneering work holds immense potential for fields like regenerative medicine, drug delivery systems, and diagnostic tools.

We can now think of engineering tissues that are sensitive to environmental changes and behave dynamically, Freeman explained, whose lab is in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences within UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Cells and tissues are composed of proteins that connect to perform specific tasks and create structures. Proteins play a key role in forming the cytoskeleton, a framework essential for cell functioning. The cytoskeleton provides cells with flexibility, allowing them to alter their shape and respond to environmental cues.

Peptide-DNA nanotechnology for the construction of synthetic cytoskeletons
Peptide-DNA nanotechnology for the construction of synthetic cytoskeletons. Credit: Margaret L. Daly et al. / Nature Chemistry

The Freeman lab took a unique approach by constructing cells with functional cytoskeletons without using natural proteins. Instead, they utilized a new programmable peptide-DNA technology, which directs peptides—the building blocks of proteins—and reused genetic material to work together in forming a cytoskeleton. According to Freeman, DNA doesn’t usually appear in a cytoskeleton. However, by reprogramming DNA sequences to serve as architectural material, they were able to connect peptides, creating structures when placed in a drop of water.

This ability to program DNA in this manner offers scientists the opportunity to create cells with specific functions and even adjust a cell’s response to external stressors. While living cells are more intricate than the synthetic ones created by Freeman’s lab, they are also less predictable and more prone to harsh environments, such as extreme temperatures.

The synthetic cells proved stable even at 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius), indicating that it’s possible to create cells with remarkable capabilities in conditions typically unfavorable to human life. Freeman notes that their materials are designed not to last indefinitely but to perform a specific function and then be reconfigured for new tasks. This flexibility in design allows for the integration of various peptide or DNA designs, enabling the customization of cells for materials like fabrics or textiles. These novel materials can be integrated with other synthetic cell technologies, paving the way for groundbreaking applications in biotechnology and medicine.

This research helps us understand what makes life, Freeman says. This synthetic cell technology not only lets us replicate what nature does but also create materials that outperform biology.


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill | Daly, M.L., Nishi, K., Klawa, S.J. et al. Designer peptide–DNA cytoskeletons regulate the function of synthetic cells. Nat. Chem. (2024).–024–01509-w

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