ARTIFICIAL CELL
Fluorescent image of DNA (white squares) patterned in circular compartments connected by capillary tubes to the cell-free extract flowing in the channel at bottom. Compartments are 100 micrometers in diameterWeizmann Institute

Scientists have come a step closer in mimicking a human cell on an artificial chip in the lab.

Materials scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel coaxed DNA anchored to a silicon chip to synthesise proteins.

The ultimate evolution of the technique would be to control hundreds of genes in many artificial cells at once, as they communicate and influence one another, like an artificial organism.

The more immediate use would be in synthesis of fuel, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the production of enzymes for industrial use.

Proteins in the body are manufactured on the coded instructions of certain genes which are switched on or off in the process.

What lead author Roy Bar-Ziv did was to study this process and replicate it outside a cell using a technique to create a network of interacting genes, reports MIT Technology Review.

The method is claimed to have advantages over artificial synthesis in a test tube where eventual accumulation of protein hampers the synthesis after a time.

In the chip technique, excess protein is flushed away.

The DNA compartments on the chip can also control the speed of synthesis and diffusion of proteins to other areas where they initiate other determined reactions. This diffusion is important during embryonic development stage.

The technique

Bundles of DNA in multiple compartments that are inter-connected and lead to a main feeding channel make the artificial cell, each a millionth of a meter in depth.

The genetic sequence inserted in the DNA contain two regulatory genes – basically "on" and "off" switches.

The channel carries the liquid extracts from the bacterial cells needed to cook proteins.

"Genes are like Lego in which you can mix and match various components to produce different outcomes; you can take a regulatory element from E. coli that naturally controls gene X, and produce a known protein; or you can take the same regulatory element but connect it to gene Y to get different functions that do not naturally occur in nature," says Bar-Ziv.

Synthetic biologists have recreated basic life outside a cell in recent Ebola diagnostic kits developed by freezing DNA bits onto paper.

The DNA on chip presents a more long-lasting kit.