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Sugar synthesis in a protocellular model leads to a cell signalling response in bacteria


The design of systems with life-like properties from simple chemical components may offer insights into biological processes, with the ultimate goal of creating an artificial chemical cell that would be considered to be alive. Most efforts to create artificial cells have concentrated on systems based on complex natural molecules such as DNA and RNA. Here we have constructed a lipid-bound protometabolism that synthesizes complex carbohydrates from simple feedstocks, which are capable of engaging the natural quorum sensing mechanism of the marine bacterium Vibrio harveyi and stimulating a proportional bioluminescent response. This encapsulated system may represent the first step towards the realization of a cellular ‘mimic’ and a starting point for ‘bottom-up’ designs of other chemical cells, which could perhaps display complex behaviours such as communication with natural cells.

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Figure 1: The chemical cell concept.
Figure 2: Evidence for protometabolic formation of carbohydrates inside a vesicle.
Figure 3: Illustration of the structural analogy between signalling molecule autoinducer-2 (AI-2) and products of the formose reaction.
Figure 4: Induction of bioluminescence in Vibrio harveyi by carbohydrate-borate complexes.


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We thank B. Bassler for the gift of V. harveyi strain MM32 and J. H. Bayley for the gift of alpha-haemolysin. We would like to thank our Chellnet colleagues ( for their input and in particular Lee Cronin, Cameron Alexander and Natalio Krasnogor. We also thank James Errey and Conor Barry for useful discussions during the preparation of this manuscript and the EPSRC (EP/D023343/1, EP/D023327/1, EP/E000614/1) for funding.

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All authors conceived and designed experiments, analysed the data and discussed the results. P.M.G. performed the experiments and P.M.G. and B.G.D. co-wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin G. Davis.

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Gardner, P., Winzer, K. & Davis, B. Sugar synthesis in a protocellular model leads to a cell signalling response in bacteria. Nature Chem 1, 377–383 (2009).

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