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Optical Tweezing Lasers Sculpt Artificial Cell Membranes

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Made-to-order cells may soon transition from the realm of science fiction to the reality of science and medicine, as researchers from Imperial College London and Loughborough University have demonstrated a new level of complexity with artificial cells by arranging them into basic tissue structures with diverse types of connectivity. The scientists have used lasers to connect, arrange, and merge artificial cells, paving the way for networks of artificial cells that act like tissues.


Findings from the new study were published in Nature Communications, in an article entitled “Sculpting and Fusing Biomimetic Vesicle Networks Using Optical Tweezers.”


The investigators note that by altering artificial cell membranes, they can now get the cells to stick together like Stickle Bricks – allowing them to be arranged into whole new structures.


“Artificial cell membranes usually bounce off each other like rubber balls,” explained senior study investigator Yuval Elani, Ph.D., an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Fellow from the department of chemistry at Imperial College. “By altering the biophysics of the membranes in our cells, we got them instead to stick to each other like Stickle Bricks.”

These structures could be used to perform functions like initiating chemical reactions or moving chemicals around networks of artificial and biological cells. This could be useful in carrying out chemical reactions in ultrasmall volumes, in studying the mechanisms through which cells communicate with one another, and in the development of a new generation of smart biomaterials.


Cells are the basic units of biology, which are capable of working together as a collective when arranged into tissues. To do this, cells must be connected and be capable of exchanging materials with one another. The team was able to link up artificial cells into a range of new architectures.


“With this, we were able to form networks of cells connected by biojunctions,” Dr. Elani noted. “By reinserting biological components such as proteins in the membrane, we could get the cells to communicate and exchange material with one another. This mimics what is seen in nature, so it’s a great step forward in creating biological-like artificial cell tissues.”


The artificial cells have a membrane-like layer as their shell, which the researchers engineered to “stick” to each other. In order to get the cells to come close enough, the team first had to manipulate the cells with “optical tweezers” that act like mini “tractor beams,” dragging and dropping cells into any position. Once connected in this way, the cells can be moved as one unit.


Additionally, the research team was also able to engineer a “tether” between two cells. Here the membranes are not stuck together, but a tendril of membrane material links them so that they can be moved together. Once they perfected the cell-sticking process, the team was able to build up more complex arrangements. These include lines of cells, 2D shapes like squares, and 3D shapes like pyramids. Once the cells are stuck together, they can be rearranged, and also pulled by the laser beam as an ensemble.


Finally, the scientists were able to connect two cells and then make them merge into one larger cell. This was achieved by coating the membranes with gold nanoparticles. When the laser beam at the heart of the optical tweezer technology was concentrated at the junction between the two cells, the nanoparticles resonated, breaking the membranes at that point. The membrane then reformed as a whole.


Merging cells in this way allowed whatever chemicals they were carrying to mix within the new, larger cell, kicking off chemical reactions. This could be useful, for example, for delivering materials such as drugs into cells and in changing the composition of cells in real time, getting them to adopt new functions.


“Connecting artificial cells together is a valuable technology in the wider toolkit we are assembling for creating these biological systems using bottom-up approaches,” concluded co-senior study investigator Oscar Ces, Ph.D., professor in the department of chemistry at Imperial College. “We can now start to scale up basic cell technologies into larger tissue-scale networks, with precise control over the kind of architecture we create.”

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