Predatory behaviour in synthetic protocell communities


Recent progress in the chemical construction of colloidal objects comprising integrated biomimetic functions is paving the way towards rudimentary forms of artificial cell-like entities (protocells). Although several new types of protocells are currently available, the design of synthetic protocell communities and investigation of their collective behaviour has received little attention. Here we demonstrate an artificial form of predatory behaviour in a community of protease-containing coacervate microdroplets and protein–polymer microcapsules (proteinosomes) that interact via electrostatic binding. The coacervate microdroplets act as killer protocells for the obliteration of the target proteinosome population by protease-induced lysis of the protein–polymer membrane. As a consequence, the proteinosome payload (dextran, single-stranded DNA, platinum nanoparticles) is trafficked into the attached coacervate microdroplets, which are then released as functionally modified killer protocells capable of rekilling. Our results highlight opportunities for the development of interacting artificial protocell communities, and provide a strategy for inducing collective behaviour in soft matter microcompartmentalized systems and synthetic protocell consortia.

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Figure 1: Design and construction of a predator/prey synthetic protocell community.
Figure 2: FACS analysis of predatory behaviour in binary protocell populations.
Figure 3: Coacervate-microdroplet-mediated proteinosome disassembly and payload transfer.
Figure 4: DNA trafficking in binary protocell populations.
Figure 5: Extraction, transfer and capture of inorganic catalysts by coacervate-microdroplet-mediated proteinosome disassembly.


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We thank the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UK) and European Research Council (Advanced Grant) for financial support. We thank A. Patil, A. Perriman and X. Huang for fruitful discussions, A. Leard and K. Jepson for assistance with confocal microscopy, and A. Herman and S. Chappell for assistance with FACS.

Author information

Y.Q., M.L. and S.M. conceived the experiments, Y.Q. and R.B. performed the experiments, Y.Q. and M.L. undertook the data analysis and Y.Q., M.L. and S.M. wrote the manuscript.

Correspondence to Stephen Mann.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Qiao, Y., Li, M., Booth, R. et al. Predatory behaviour in synthetic protocell communities. Nature Chem 9, 110–119 (2017).

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