May 14 (UPI) -- Scientists have constructed unique tissue-like structures using artificial cells and a tractor beam. The technology could eventually be used to create complex networks of artificial cells.
Researchers at Imperial College London and Loughborough University were able to alter the artificial cell membranes to promote connectivity, causing cells to stick together like "stickle bricks."
"Artificial cell membranes usually bounce off each other like rubber balls," ICL chemist Yuval Elani said in a news release. "By altering the biophysics of the membranes in our cells, we got them instead to stick to each other like stickle bricks."
Researchers used a miniature tractor beam, or "optical tweezers," to drag and drop the artificial cells into positions, causing them to adhere to each other and form unique structures. The structures could then be moved as an entire unit and combined without structures.
Scientists were able to build simple cell networks capable of approximating biological functions.
"By reinserting biological components such as proteins in the membrane, we could get the cells to communicate and exchange material with one another," Elani said. "This mimics what is seen in nature, so it's a great step forward in creating biological-like artificial cell tissues."
Researchers also engineered a less rigid connection mechanism, a tether that links two cells without directly connecting them. The two connection mechanisms allowed scientists to build 2D and 3D structures, including long chains of cells and pyramid-like shapes.
The team of biochemists were also able to connect two cells and merge them into one. Scientists coated the membranes of the cells with gold nanoparticles and then blasted their junction with the optical tweezer's laser beam. When the nanoparticles vibrated, the membrane broke down and then two cells fused together.
Scientists could potentially use the fusion technique to trigger intercell chemical reactions. When the two cells fuse and reform, their insides mix. The technology could be used to deliver drugs or alter a cell's primary function.
The new cell architecture and cell manipulation techniques were detailed Monday in the journal Nature Communications.
"Connecting artificial cells together is a valuable technology in the wider toolkit we are assembling for creating these biological systems using bottom-up approaches," said ICL chemist Oscar Ces. "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."