A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham has taken some important first steps to creating a synthetic copycat of a living cell.
Using polymers - long-chain molecules - Dr Cameron Alexander and PhD student George Pasparakis in the University's School of Pharmacy have constructed capsule-like structures that have properties mimicking the surfaces of a real cell.
Researchers show how they have been able to encourage the capsules to talk to natural bacteria cells and transfer molecular information.
According to the researchers, the breakthrough could have a number of potential medical uses.
The technology could be used for the development of new targeted drug delivery systems, where the capsules would be used to carry drug molecules to attack specific diseased cells in the body, while leaving healthy cells intact, thereby reducing the number of side affects that can be associated with treatments for life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.
It could also be used as an anti-microbial agent, allowing doctors to destroy harmful bacteria, without attacking other health-promoting bacteria in the body, which could offer a new weapon in the fight against superbugs.
"These are very primitive steps in the lab, and still a long way from a true synthetic counterpart to a biological cell, but we have demonstrated that we can transfer certain molecules from inside the synthetic capsule to the bacteria when they are in physical contact, which is an exciting development," Alexander said.
"It's extremely early stages, but it's a move closer to the big experiment when we can one day ask whether a natural cell can think a synthetic cell is one of its own," he added.
The study is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.