The CHELL : A Bottom-Up approach to in vitro and in silico Minimal Life-like Constructs

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Chemistry


This work is directed towards generating artificial objects that have properties mimicking those of biological cells. Specifically we set out to test if it is possible for an artificial cell to imitate a natural cell in terms of responding to biological signals. We do not aim to produce an artificial life-form but rather we seek to evaluate whether some processes (signals) that natural cells use can be imitated by the synthetic cells such that the natural cells are unable to tell the difference. The work will involve the modelling, design, preparation and evaluation of capsule-like structures using a combination of compuer science, chemistry, materials science, with a further focus on potential ethical and social aspects of artificial cellular systems. The cell-imitating capsules will contain chemistries we can use as models of signalling ands metabolism, and will be designed such that we can use the capsules and signals to/from them in 'conversations' and 'imitation games' with real cells.The work is intended as fundamental curiosity-driven investigation and addresses the scientific, societal and ethical aspects of minimal-life constructs, However, there are many potential spin-outs of this work if we show that it is indeed possible to 'talk' to natural cells via artificial capsules. Examples might include 'smart' antibiotics, drug carriers for locally-directed therapies and intelligent materials for tissue repair.


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Title Brainwaves 
Description Prof Cronin has appeared on the BBC Radio Scotland "Brainwaves" program, in which he discusses his work, the origin of life, and his development as a scientist. (link below for a limited time only) 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Scottish audience (but also available on-line) 
Title Disruptive Interview 
Description In an interview for the 3D printing magazine "Disruptive", Lee Cronin discusses his approach of using 3D printing technology for drug discovery and pharmaceuticals, and the digitalisation of the chemical world. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact target audience 
Title People Behind the Science 
Description Prof Cronin has appeared on the "People Behind the Science" podcast, where he shared his views on the Origin of Life, and on how chemistry gets complicated, as well as discussing his life as a scientist. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact inspiration 
Title TED Talk 
Description The idea is to make a device that could download plans for molecules and create them, in exactly the way that 3D printers can download plans and create objects. He would have a universal set of software, hardware and inks, and he believes all of them, including the ink, could be fantastically cheap. The software would be the product; the materials would be commodities. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact What would this mean? It would mean that you could print your own medicine. First, his team going to look at drug discovery and manufacturing. If drugs could be manufactured easily, they could be distributed anywhere - even printed at the point of need. If a new super-bug emerges, you could print a treatment right where it breaks out. Ultimately, Cronin says, "For me the cool bit, going into the future, is the idea of taking your own stem cells with your own genes and environment and printing your own medicine." Quickly delivered, cheap, personalized medicine. Does that sound like enough? If not, in the long long run, "You could make a matter fabricator. Beam me up, Scotty!" 
Title Through the Wormhole 
Description Lee Cronin and Cronin group research were featured on the latest episode of Through the Wormhole. Lee explained his theory of chemical evolution that pre-dates biological evolution without genes. The episode was broadcast on the Science Channel, and the Cronin Group research can be seen in the first section of the 1-hour episode. (with Morgan Freeman) 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Large audience. 
Description The original CHELLNet grant lead to the purchasing of our cell microscopy equipment. Grant EP/G026130/1 was continuation funding to develop and explore the discoveries that were made when we applied equipment in an unusual way; to look at POM materials and their cation-exchange reactions under dissipative conditions. Two key discoveries were made, each of which led to a number of publications:
1) POM (polyoxometalate) based micron scale tubes that can be built from a large variety of different starting materials, can be built into networks and can be controlled in an automated way using laser heating through a multi-touch iPad interface.
2) iCHELLs - inorganic chemical cells made by interfacial aggregation of a precipitation membrane around small droplets. The iCHELL units (again based on POM materials) were shown to have size-exclusion properties, could be tuned with functionalities such as redox or chirality, and could be 'manufactured' in large populations using a microfluidic platform.
Exploitation Route These materials have a number of potential roles in: micro-patterning of metal oxides (sensing, electronics, security-marking, coatings), hybrid membrane technology, artificial cellularity, microfluidic device manufacture. Also, we are actively pursuing a number of these areas.
Microtube growth from POM and related materials has now been seen by other researchers also..
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Chemicals,Electronics,Energy,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description Findings have been used to integrate new technologies to improve the control over the nanotubes growth, and make them more reliable and controllable