Professor Petra Schwille from Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany, is probably the Gordon Ramsay of biophysics. Like the chef who can turn filet mignon, mushroom and flour into beef wellington; Professor Schwille is skilful at making synthetic cell out of protein, buffering agents, fat molecules and chemical energy.
According to her, cultivating synthetic cells from scratch is easy but keeping the biological process going is not. There is a lot of shuffling involved on and within the lipid membranes. This area of research is rapidly advancing because of microfluidic technologies, which give biophysicists a say over the actions of various cellular parts.
Just the year before, cells made by Dr. Sheref S. Mansy from the University of Trento, Italy were able to chemically communicate with bacteria without them realizing that they are man-made. Dr. Mansy and his team packed cell-like structures with DNA instructions so that they can use them to generate RNA and subsequently, manufacture proteins under the presence of bacterial molecule – acyl homoserine lactone (AHL).
To create a bilateral communication between the synthetic cells and other living cells, they were placed near three different species of live bacteria – E. coli, Vibrio fischeri and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, for them to response to the AHL by manufacturing proteins. The synthetic cells would then detect the presence of these proteins and produce its own AHL which the bacteria could interpret.
The cells had passed the Turing Test, what’s next?
Dr. Mansy believed his synthetic cells had passed the Turing test – the assessment designed for robots to trick human into thinking that they are no machines, since living cells responded to his lab-produced cells naturally.
In fact, researchers had successfully mould cell-like structures into the desired shapes, generating preliminary metabolism and integrating man-made genomes into living cells. However, it remains a challenge to bring all three innovations together.
However, as scientists at this year’s AAAI conference on artificial intelligence duly pointed out, most bioengineering requires domain specialties and most workflow are relatively manual. The know-how are usually pass-down between scientists and their students, with techniques seldom mentioned on publications as they may subject to intellectual property claims. This alone make it hard for new technologies or even artificial intelligence to step in.
Collaborations and future potentials for AI in synthetic biology
Bioengineering and cell-adjusting are two different things. The latter has existed for decades. From loading the DNA of frog into a bacterium back in the 70s to the present day fine tuning of immune cell to increase cancer treatment success. The former, however, is more of a constructing something from scratch and ensure it solves a problem. For example, having a man-made kidney for those who are on dialysis.
Despite so, researchers like Professor Schwille and Dr. Mansy are hoping that artificial cells will be able to act as mediator along communication pathways where organisms fail to interact in near future. Otherwise, the artificial cell can work the other way round by messing up the communications of disease causing bacteria.
A notable start will be the developing of smart delivery vehicles. To ensure that the particular type of drug intake by patients reached the targeted site had gave rise to the demand for vehicles which will permit molecules to be transferred to the designated within a living body. AI can probably kick in by revealing the areas of biophysics or biology that need further study.
A collection of researchers from 17 laboratories in the Netherlands had formed alliance this September. Building a Synthetic Cell (BaSyC) had received an 18.8 million Euro of Dutch Gravitation grant and aimed to invest the next decade to compose a living cellular system which can divide and grow independently. There’s a lot we can look forward to.