Scientists are hoping to understand the origin of life better by creating artificial cells in the lab. A group of scientists from Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, has for the first time created an artificial “plastic” cell, complete with working organelles that are able to carry out chemical reactions. The study was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

An artificial cell is a man-made particle that simulates the functions of a real cell; in synthetic biology it is considered a completely synthetically made cell that captures energy, has an ability to mutate and reproduce, and contains macromolecules. Inside a real living cell, chemical reactions occur in various compartments and at different levels of complexity. The scientists were able to create lab-made organelles, which are small units or compartments within cells that have their own particular role and function. They are usually enclosed within a lipid bilayer. With working organelles, the plastic cell, which was made from polymer, was able to function more closely to a real cell.

“Competing groups are working closer to biology; making cells from fatty acids, for example,” the authors wrote, according to a press release. “We would like to do the same in the future. Another step would be to make cells that produce their own energy supply. We are also working on ways of controlling the movement of chemicals within the cell, towards organelles. By simulating these things, we are able to better understand living cells. One day we will even be able to make something that looks very much like the real thing…”

Back in 2010, a group of scientists also claimed they had created the first synthetic cell, described as “literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature,” molecular biologist Richard Ebright, from Rutgers University, told The Wall Street Journal. It was created by man-made genetic instructions, ultimately a man-made crafted organism, the next step past cloning and genetic engineering. James Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University, described it to the WSJ as “an organism with a synthetic genome, not a synthetic organism. It is tough to draw where the line is.” The bacterium the scientists created was essentially a form of computer code that transformed into a life form. This type of synthetic biology — a combination of molecular biology, genetics, and chemistry — can be used in companies that produce gas or fuels, vaccines, and other often industrial products.

Though being able to produce synthetic life is indeed an exciting turning point, ethical questions remain as to our rights to create life on our own. And some scientists believe we still don’t know enough about biology to state we can truly create new life from nothing. “This is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms, not make new life from scratch,” Jim Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, told Nature. “Frankly, scientists don’t know enough about biology to create life. Although the Human Genome Project has expanded the parts list for cells, there is no instruction manual for putting them together to produce a living cell.”

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