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“Protein circuits” move a step closer to cell-to-cell communication

Microscopic image of a cell
The new process mimics the way a cell naturally functions and emulates the ways cells typically communicate with one another. | iStock/Jian Fan
 

 

By Fernanda Ferreira

 

Through synthetic biology, scientists can add novel functions to cells, such as the ability to produce new materials or detect and respond in specific ways to diseases.

Though the applications are exciting, the process suffers from some inefficiencies – one of which Stanford University chemical engineer Xiaojing Ga is working to avoid.

For many years scientists have known how to engineer these new abilities in cells via gene circuits – synthetic networks of genes that can be integrated into cells so they sense specific triggers and deliver a desired response. But as part of this process, the genes in gene circuits must first be translated into proteins in order to respond. A faster option would be a “protein circuit,” which cuts out the middleman by making the circuits from the proteins themselves, says Gao. Yet this too has a big drawback: Protein circuits operate entirely within cells, while the majority of biological processes require cells to be in communication with one another.

Now, Gao and a team of researchers have taken protein circuits a step closer to cell-to-cell communication. In a paper published February 17 in Nature Communications, the researchers describe a new platform they’ve developed that enables the circuits to release the proteins from the cell or display them on the cell surface. Down the road, the researchers hope, the cells will be able to respond to these proteins. The effect, says Alexander Vlahos, a postdoctoral scholar in chemical engineering and lead author of the paper, will be that “you can engineer a very small subset of cells that can then have an effect on other cells.”