The Functional Protocell concept

By Eric Jakobsson

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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We have invented and created the first prototype of the Functional Protocell.

We define the “functional protocell" as a nanoporous solid surrounded by a membrane. The cavities in the solid can be filled with any desired electrolyte up to the limit of solubility. The surrounding membrane can contain any combination of membrane proteins. Thus the functional protocell can be imbued with any array of intracellular and membrane processes that are desired. It can be considered analogous to either a biological cell or an organelle such as a mitochondrion or a chloroplast (which started life as bacteria the order of 1018 nanoyears ago).

The phrase “functional protocell” as we are using it should be distinguished from the term “minimal protocell” that is commonly applied to a (so far hypothetical) minimal assembly of molecules that would have all the essential properties of cellular life, including self-replication. The “functional protocell” does not have all the essential properties of life, but would have specific designed properties that would make it technologically or biomedically useful. In some ways, the functional protocells would have the basic components of cells---a membrane that could do molecular recognition and transport, and an intracellular network of reactions that could sustain cell-like functioning. But it would have no properties that are not specifically built into it; especially the “functional protocell” would not self-replicate. The rationale for creating the functional protocell stems from the observation that cells have enormous flexibility and specificity of behavior compared to human-made entities on the same size scale. The key is the combination of a complex surface coating for specific molecular recognition and transport tasks, and complex contents comprised of networks of molecules organized to do specific tasks. Biological cells and viruses are often questionable therapeutic agents because of unpredictable side effects. Living cells and viruses may be modified by engineering to give some desirable properties, but because their functioning and their effects on human function are not completely understood, undesirable side effects can not be fully predicted and eliminated. Completely synthetic functional protocells, on the other hand, would only have components that are put into them, and could be guaranteed not to replicate.


Professor Eric Jakobsson of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, Biophysics, Bioengineering and Neuroscience, University of Illinois
This Breeze presentation was prepared by Omar Sobh, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Nano-Bio Workshop and nanoHUB Summer School,
    NCSA, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, July 30-31, 2007
  • Eric Jakobsson (2008), "The Functional Protocell concept,"

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NCSA, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL