Synthetic signalling system in artificial cells

Synthetic signalling system in artificial cells

Diagram showing a phototrigger in a sender cell and ion transport to receiver cells.

Researchers from Professor Matthew Langton’s group in the Department of Chemistry have developed a synthetic signalling system that enables communication between artificial cells, reported in an article highlighted as a Hot Paper in Angewandte Chemie.

Cell to cell communication in nature enables collective behaviour and is facilitated by the sending and receiving of small signalling molecules. Achieving such communication in artificial cells has potential to unlock new therapeutic applications (such as delivering drugs from artificial lipid capsules in response to chemical signals), or in engineering nanoscale reaction vessels.

DPhil students Shaun Gartland and Toby Johnson, working with Part II student Euan Walkley, have developed an artificial signalling system which enables communication between a small population of “sender” cells to a larger population of “receiver” cells. The system is derived from photo-caged zinc ion transporters, which can be triggered to be released from the “sender” cells using specific wavelengths of light. Uptake of the released signalling molecules into the “receiver” cells triggers a catalytic transmembrane ion transport process. This leads to an overall inter-cellular signal transduction and amplification mechanism, reminiscent of signalling pathways in biology which activate transmembrane proteins.

This research was generously funded by a Leverhulme Trust grant entitled: “Supramolecular transporters for engineering signal networks in artificial cells”, with further support from the Royal Society.

The published work is openly available at: