Artificial cells communicate and cooperate like biological cells, ants (w/ Video)

Jul 19, 2010

Inspired by the social interactions of ants and slime molds, University of Pittsburgh engineers have designed artificial cells capable of self-organizing into independent groups that can communicate and cooperate. Recently reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the research is a significant step toward producing synthetic cells that behave like natural organisms and could perform important, microscale functions in fields ranging from the chemical industry to medicine.

The team presents in the PNAS paper computational models that provide a blueprint for developing artificial cells—or microcapsules—that can communicate, move independently, and transport "cargo" such as chemicals needed for reactions. Most importantly, the "biologically inspired" devices function entirely through simple physical and chemical processes, behaving like complex natural organisms but without the complicated internal biochemistry, said corresponding author Anna Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
This video shows a "dragon" formation comprising two cooperating signaling cells (shown as red) leading a large group of targets. Credit: University of Pittsburgh

The Pitt group's microcapsules interact by secreting in a way similar to that used by signal to communicate and assemble into groups. And with a nod to ants, the cells leave chemical trails as they travel, prompting fellow microcapsules to follow. Balazs worked with lead author German Kolmakov and Victor Yashin, both postdoctoral researchers in Pitt's Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, who produced the cell models; and with Pitt professor of electrical and computer engineering Steven Levitan, who devised the ant-like trailing ability.

The researchers write that communication hinges on the interaction between microcapsules exchanging two different types of nanoparticles. The "signaling" cell secretes nanoparticles known as agonists that prompt the second "target" microcapsule to emit nanoparticles known as antagonists.

Video of this interaction is available on Pitt's Web site and featured below, one of several videos of the Pitt has provided. As the signaling cell (right) emits the agonist nanoparticles (shown as blue), the target cell (left) responds with antagonists (shown as red) that stop the first cell from secreting. Once the signaling cell goes dormant, the target cell likewise stops releasing antagonists—which makes the signaling cell start up again. The microcapsules get locked into a cycle that equates to an intercellular conversation, a dialogue humans could control by adjusting the capsules' permeability and the quantity of nanoparticles they contain.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Like ants, the cells can be designed to leave chemical trails as they travel, prompting fellow microcapsules to follow. Credit: University of Pittsburgh

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Signaling cell (right) initiates communication with target cell (left) by releasing nanoparticles. Credit: University of Pittsburgh

Locomotion results as the released nanoparticles alter the surface underneath the microcapsules. The cell's polymer-based walls begin to push on the fluid surrounding the capsule and the fluid pushes back even harder, moving the capsule. At the same time, the nanoparticles from the signaling cell pull it toward the target cells. Groups of capsules begin to form as the signaling cell rolls along, picking up target cells. In practical use, Balazs said, the signaling cell could transport target cells loaded with cargo; the team's next step is to control the order in which target cells are collected and dropped off.

The researchers adjusted the particle output of the signaling cell to create various cell formations, some of which are shown in the videos available on Pitt's Web site and with this release. The first clip—titled "Ant Trail Formation"—shows the trailing "ants," wherein the particle secretions of one microcapsule group are delayed until another group passes by and activates it. The newly awakened cluster then follows the chemical residue left behind by the lead group.

A second film, titled "Dragon Formation," depicts a "dragon" formation comprising two cooperating signaling cells (shown as red) leading a large group of targets. Similar to these are "snakes" made up of competing signaling capsules pulling respective lines of target cells.

Explore further: Synthetic virus developed to deliver a new generation of medicines

Provided by University of Pittsburgh

5 /5 (4 votes)

Related Stories

Microcapsules open in tumor cells

Aug 23, 2006

Medicines are most helpful when they directly affect the diseased organs or cells - for example, tumour cells. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, and Ludwig-Maximilian-University ...

Tiny capsules deliver drugs

Jan 12, 2009

A tiny particle syringe composed of polymer layers and nanoparticles may provide drug delivery that targets diseased cells without harming the rest of the body, according to a team of chemical engineers. This ...

Using Gold Nanoparticles to Hit Cancer Where It Hurts

Feb 15, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Taking gold nanoparticles to the cancer cell and hitting them with a laser has been shown to be a promising tool in fighting cancer, but what about cancers that occur in places where a laser light can’t ...

United we stand; divided we fall

Jul 15, 2009

In the July 15th issue of G&D, Dr. Roberto Kolter (Harvard Medical School) and colleagues make the unprecedented observation of paracrine signaling during Bacillus subtilis biofilm formation.

Recommended for you

Tiny graphene drum could form future quantum memory

Aug 28, 2014

Scientists from TU Delft's Kavli Institute of Nanoscience have demonstrated that they can detect extremely small changes in position and forces on very small drums of graphene. Graphene drums have great potential ...

User comments : 0