Whether it’s to unravel the mysteries of life or to develop a nature-inspired technology for a specific application, many researchers around the world are trying to build cells from scratch and replicate some of their functionality, such as the ability to produce energy, communicate and divide. But although cells are the building blocks of life, they are incredibly complex and far from being understood.
Consider the mechanism of cell division. Not even the full division, just the pinching of the cell in the middle and forget about the last cut which is controlled by a separate system. Professor Gijsje Koenderink and her team have analyzed numerous research studies on this topic and highlighted the main conditions required to trigger cell division in animal cell-like systems.
A cell must have a machinery, maintained and regulated, that can deform its shape. In animal cells deformation is done by actomyosin networks. These networks are composed mainly of two complex molecules, a protein called myosin, which holds and pulls on actin, a filamentous protein. To avoid running out of actin during deformation, cells maintain and regulate their actin cortex, the layer of actin filaments just underneath the plasma membrane.
Actin and myosin are intimately connected and need each other to create the deformation of the cell. Synthetic cell researchers make extensive use of this network, but while each protein is well understood, how they must work together to deform the cell remains unclear.
With these requirements in mind, Professor Koenderink’s team identified two routes, two possible scenarios for achieving synthetic cell division using actin filaments. The Naturalistic Route, where researchers mimic the processes that occur in living cells, is complex but promises to build multifunctional, stable cells and help better understand how life works. The Engineering Route is more practical and attempts to find the simplest possible way to divide a cell. Of course, nothing is black and white and researchers actually use a mix of both approaches.
The paper also highlights the importance of the interplay between the cell membrane and the actin cortex and recommends making the membrane an active player in cell division.
Dr. Lucia Baldauf, first author of the paper, and Dr. Marcos Arribas Perez of Koenderink’s lab, who shared their knowledge of cell division in preparation for this paper, both shared their optimism, but also the challenges.
Dr. Perez has seen “an acceleration over the past year,” but “it’s critical to be open and communicate the results better with other researchers.”
An argument shared by Lucia, who added that she would like “reporting standards to be more of a focus” so that the work can be shared properly. The community also needs “advances in the tools and methods for building, manipulating, and studying synthetic cells.”
Actomyosin-Driven Division of a Synthetic Cell
Lucia Baldauf, Lennard van Buren, Federico Fanalista, and Gijsje Hendrika Koenderink
ACS Synthetic Biology 2022 11 (10), 3120-3133
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