Right Turn: From chemistry to biology: A plastic cell

Author: Stacey Johnson, 01/24/14


My colleague, Casandra Gardner, PhD, was excited when she came across the image, below, of a plastic cell. Since my understanding of polymers is limited to what my university chem-eng boyfriend taught me many (many!) years ago, I thought Casey would do a much better job explaining the significance.

As a CCRM employee – an organization heavily focused on commercializing regenerative medicine and conducting stem cell research – sometimes I wonder why I spent four years getting my PhD in Chemistry. Being constantly surrounded by “cell-people” (as I like to call them), often has me wishing that I had taken more biology classes rather than organic chemistry classes in university (a problem I’m sure most people don’t have). Hence, I LOVE when I come across interesting scientific discoveries that combine my past chemistry life with my new cell-intensive universe.

A team of chemists has produced a functioning cell made solely out of polymers (i.e. plastic)! Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, recently published an article on this plastic cell in Nature Chemistry. The plastic cell is composed of tiny polymer spheres filled with enzymes (functioning as organelles and nucleus), and encapsulated them in polymer coating (functioning as the cell wall). I know this may seem like no big deal…great they have made a LEGO-version of a cell, BUT the plastic cell is actually capable of performing tiny multi-step chemical processes, just like a normal cell. For example, a cascade of chemical reactions results in the cell glowing in the dark – proof that it is working. Researchers hope that this technology will help them emulate the efficient complex biochemical pathways that naturally occur in cells, and thus further a chemist’s ability to develop small-scale, efficient, enzymatically controlled processes.

The world's first working cell made from plastic. Source: Wiley

The world’s first working cell made from plastic. Source: Wiley









But what’s really exciting to me is, I’ve gotten to explain this complex chemistry to the “cell-people” around me. It’s ex”cell”erating.

Our regular feature, Right Turn, showcases the “lighter” side of stem cells and regenerative medicine. Every Friday, we will bring you cartoons, photos, videos and other content that may be just as thought provoking as the written submissions that you are used to finding here, but they definitely won’t be blogs.

As always, we welcome your feedback and we also welcome suitable submissions. Be creative! Use the right (!) side of your brain. Make us laugh! Let’s see if we can make this new direction a positive one for all of us. Send your submission to info(at)ccrm.ca.


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Stacey Johnson

Stacey Johnson

For almost 20 years, Stacey has been providing strategic communications counsel to government, corporate, technology and health organizations. Prior to that, Stacey was at the CTV Television Network, first as a researcher, then as a story producer for “Goldhawk Fights Back,” a special ombudsman segment that aired weekly on the National News and Canada AM. Before joining CCRM as the Director, Communications and Marketing, Stacey was the Director of Communications for the Canadian Arthritis Network. Stacey is editor of Signals. You can follow Stacey on Twitter @msstaceyerin.
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