Natural and artificial cells are two common chassis in synthetic biology. Natural cells can perform complex tasks through synthetic genetic constructs, but their autonomous replication often poses safety concerns for biomedical applications. In contrast, artificial cells based on non-replicating materials, while having reduced biochemical complexity, offer more defined and controllable functions.

For the first time, biomedical engineers at the University of California, Davis, have created semi-living ‘cyborg cells’. The cyborg cells, which retain the abilities of living cells but cannot divide, can be used for a variety of purposes, from making therapeutic drugs to cleaning up pollutants.

To create Cyborg Cells, engineers came up with an approach: they imbued living bacterial cells with the basic units of an artificial polymer. Once in the cell, exposure to UV light caused the polymer to crosslink into a hydrogel matrix. Although the cells could continue to function biologically, they could not divide. The cyborg cells are programmable. They retain essential cellular activities and acquire non-equity abilities because they do not divide.

Cyborg cells showed greater resistance to stresses that normally cause normal cells to die, such as exposure to hydrogen peroxide, antibiotics or high pH.

Eventually, they were able to manipulate the cells so that they could enter cancer cells grown in the lab.

The team is conducting additional research into the creation and control of cyborg cells and the effects of different matrix materials. In addition, they want to explore how they can be used for multiple purposes, from addressing environmental issues to identifying and treating disease.

Cheemeng Tan, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis, said: “Finally, we are interested in the bioethics of applying cyborg cells, as they are cell-derived biomaterials that are not cells or materials.”

Magazine reference:

  1. Luis E. Contreras-Liano, Yu-Han Liu, et al. Engineering Cyborg Bacteria by Intracellular Hydrogelation. Advanced science. DOI: 10.1002/advs.202204175