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Researchers have used lasers to connect, arrange and merge artificial cells

Mini tractor beams help arrange artificial cells into tissue structures

Researchers have used lasers to connect, arrange and merge artificial cells, paving the way for networks of artificial cells that act like tissues.

The team say 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.

Biological cells can perform complex functions, but are difficult to controllably engineer. Artificial cells, however, can in principle be made to order.

Now, 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 different types of connectivity.

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 ultra-small 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. In order to do this, cells must be connected and be capable of exchanging materials with one another.

The team were able to link up artificial cells into a range of new architectures, the results of which are published this week in Nature Communications.

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.

Lead researcher Dr Yuval Elani, an EPSRC Research Fellow from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: “Artificial cell membranes usually bounce off each other like rubber balls. By altering the biophysics of the membranes in our cells, we got them instead to stick to each other like stickle bricks.

“With this, we were able to form networks of cells connected by ‘biojunctions’. 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.”

Loughborough’s Dr Guido Bolognesi, a Lecturer in Bioengineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering added: “Cells are extraordinary machines which can organise into spatially-ordered assemblies (i.e. tissues) and exhibit collective behaviours.

“We have now developed a technology that allows us to mimic these fascinating capabilities in an artificial system. This new technology enables the construction of a new generation of biological-like systems with potential as tissue mimics, miniaturised bioreactors, responsive and sensing biomaterials and implanted therapeutic devices.”

The team were also able to engineer a ‘tether’ between two cells. Here the cells are not stuck together, but a tendril of membrane material links them so that, in principle, material exchange between cells is still possible.  

Once they had perfected the cell-sticking process, the team were 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 team were also 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 reforms 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.

Sculpting and fusing biomimetic vesicle networks using optical tweezers’ by Guido Bolognesi, Mark S. Friddin, Ali Salehi-Reyhani, Nathan E. Barlow, Nicholas J. Brooks, Oscar Ces and Yuval Elani is published in Nature Communications.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 18/76

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Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2018 QS World University Rankings, top in the country for its student experience in the 2018 THE Student Experience Survey and named University of the Year in the Whatuni Student Choice Awards 2018.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 6th in the Guardian University League Table 2018, 7th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018 and 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2019. It was also named Sports University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2017.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

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