With existing tools of biotech, you can use cells to grow vats full of useful compounds such as drugs and animal feed. But the products are limited--for example, cells can't be used to synthesize substances toxic to themselves--and the chemical reactions are hard to control. Japanese researchers thought artificial cells might handle a wider variety of tasks. So in 1989, the Ministry of International Trade & Industry kicked off a 10-year, $50 million cell research project. Long-term, researchers hope to teach artificial cells to assemble themselves into large membranes that can produce complex, pure proteins beyond the reach of natural cells.
"Intelligent" membranes producing complex molecules--such as liquid crystals for computer displays--may not appear for 10 to 20 years. But some components are already taking shape. The National Institute of Bioscience & Human Technology in Tsukuba developed a photo-energy conversion system to fuel artificial cells. Chugai Pharmaceutical Co. has produced a protein that may help them absorb useful substances. And Kao Corp. has purified an enzyme to synthesize glyco-lipids, which could be the brick-and-mortar for the membranes.