Smarter Membranes Made By Smarter Cells

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.