Building Artificial Cells (Protocells) from the Bottom Up – Ersatz Evolution

As already pointed out in previous topic, the most dramatic endeavours in synthetic biology are attempts to create manmade cells that are capable of selfassembly and self-repair and able to reproduce. Many hurdles will have to be overcome before this goal is achieved; but it is a realistic one, and several research groups are pursuing it. One such is theoretical physicist (2004) Steen Rasmussen won a $5 million grant from Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico, USA)– the atomic bomb’s birthplace– to build a living cell(artificial cells) entirely from scratch without using DNA.  While most synbio projects are top-down – re-arranging existing life or reverse-engineering it to arrive at life’s barest essentials– Rasmussen’s project is truly bottom-up: He is trying to design life by creating its essential ingredients and mixing them together in a test tube.88 His research team believes their “protocell” will require three elements to sustain life – a metabolism that harvests and generates energy, an information-storing molecule.(like DNA) and a membrane to hold it all together.89 Rasmussen is tweaking nature’s cell design for his “Los Alamos Bug.” Rather than an oily membrane keeping water inside, his cell is basically a droplet of oil, which keeps water on the outside.90 Furthermore, it uses a different double helix molecule to carry instructions: Rather than DNA, the Los Alamos Bug uses human-made PNA – peptide nucleic acid. PNA has the same structure and is made from the same chemical bases as DNA – G, C, A and T – but the molecule’s backbone is made of peptides, the build-ing blocks of proteins – instead of DNA’s sugar-phosphate backbone.

Rasmussen and Packard have established a synthetic biology start-up based in Venice, Italy, Proto Life, to commercialize the Bug and/or its components. While Packard acknowledges that their bottom-up approach appears to lag behind life creating teams led by Venter, Endy and Jay Keasling (see below), he argues that the protocell approach will lead to a better understanding of living and non-living systems.  There’s a good chance that the first lab to produce a working, evolving protocell will be, like ProtoLife, a member of the PACE consortium. PACE – Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution – is a project involving14 European and US universities and companies and is funded by the European Commission. PACE has received over €6.5 million through the Commission’s 6th Framework Programme

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