Engineers created semi-living ‘cyborg cells’ with many capabilities

The cells could maintain their biological activity but could not reproduce.


Natural and artificial cells are two common chassis in synthetic biology. Natural cells can perform complex tasks through synthetic genetic constructs, but their autonomous replication often causes safety concerns for biomedical applications. In contrast, albeit possessing reduced biochemical complexity, artificial cells based on nonreplicating materials provide more defined and controllable functions.

For the first time, biomedical engineers at the University of California, Davis, have created semi-living “cyborg cells.” The cyborg cells, which retain the capacities of live cells but cannot divide, might be used for various purposes, from making therapeutic medications to cleaning up pollutants.

To create Cyborg Cells, engineers came up with an approach: they infused living bacterial cells with the basic units of an artificial polymer. Once within the cell, UV light exposure caused the polymer to cross-link into a hydrogel matrix. Although the cells could continue to function biologically, they could not divide. The cyborg cells are programmable. They preserve essential cellular activities and gain nonnative abilities as they don’t divide.

Cyborg cells exhibited greater resistance to stresses that normally cause normal cells to die, such as exposure to hydrogen peroxide, antibiotics, or high pH.

Finally, they were able to engineer the cells so that they could invade cancer cells grown in the lab.

The team is conducting an additional study on the creation and control of cyborg cells and the effects of various matrix materials. Additionally, they want to investigate how they may be used for multiple purposes, from addressing environmental issues to identifying and treating diseases.

Cheemeng Tan, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UC Davis, said“Finally, we are interested in the bioethics of applying cyborg cells as they are cell-derived biomaterials that are neither cells nor materials.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Luis E. Contreras-Liano, Yu-Han Liu, et al. Engineering Cyborg Bacteria Through Intracellular Hydrogelation. Advanced Science. DOI: 10.1002/advs.202204175 
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