Synthetic cells

Synthetic Cells That Mimic Biology Could Offer Clues on Mysteries of Life, its Origins, and Extraterrestrials

Scientists are making progress in the development of synthetic cells capable of emulating the biological processes of living systems, which could expand our knowledge of life’s essential functions and potentially offer new clues about the origins of life on Earth.

The new research could lead to revolutionary advancements in food, medicine, and treatments for diseases, and could also pave the way toward synthetic organ transplants. In the future, such developments may even help to facilitate the creation of life forms capable of operating in extreme environments, and offer researchers clues about how life might evolve elsewhere in the universe.

The fundamental units of all life, cells make up all living things on Earth,with the smallest organisms representing single cells, and larger, more complex organisms being comprised of as many as trillions of cells.

The field of synthetic biology seeks to bring together various scientific fields in the creation of new kinds of biological components, such as non-living synthetic cells that are engineered to mimic the biological processes of real cells by encasing small portions of cellular biochemistry within a membrane.

“The potential for this field is incredible,” according to Lynn Rothschild, the lead author of a new paper that appeared in ACS Synthetic Biology, where she and her colleagues explored synthetic cell production and its potentials.

Rothschild, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and her colleagues say that ultimately, the aim for this research is the construction of a fully functioning cell from scratch, which has not yet been realized despite the current capabilities science afford us in the modification of living cells.

“The pursuit of this goal alone has—and will—yield scientific insights affecting fields as diverse as cell biology, biotechnology, medicine, and astrobiology,” Rothschild and her colleagues write in the new paper’s abstract.

Presently, researchers have made considerable progress toward the creation of life-like features, which include compartmentalization, metabolism, and replication, among others. Current efforts also seek to combine features like these, which researchers like Rothschild hope will allow them to demonstrate certain key attributes of living organisms that include responses to stimuli, directed movement, and even the slow process of evolution that led to the formation of all current life forms on Earth.

In their paper, Rothschild and her colleagues examine the different approaches currently being undertaken in this area of research, and propose a strategic roadmap they envision as the path toward realization of the vision of building cells from molecular components.

“It’s a privilege to have led this group in forming what we envision will be a founding document, a resource that will spur this field on,” Rothschild said in a statement.

In addition to offering researchers insights into biology and its evolution over time, the development of synthetic cells could provide scientists with the tools required to create new forms of life, which may even include the engineering of “extremeophiles” that can thrive in environments that normally preclude life forms, such as extreme cold, or even in the presence of large quantities of radiation.

Understanding the dynamics of cell creation could also help lead to discoveries involving life on other worlds.

“We’re starting to develop the skills to not just create synthetic analogs of life as it may have happened on Earth but to consider pathways to life that could form on other planets,” Rothschild says.

“We use the capabilities of cells all the time,” she adds. “[W]e build houses with wood, we use leather in our shoes, we breathe oxygen.”

“Life has amazing precision, and if you can harness it, it’s unbelievable what we could accomplish.”

Rothschild and her colleagues’ new paper, “Building Synthetic Cells─From the Technology Infrastructure to Cellular Entities,” appeared in ACS Synthetic Biology on March 24, 2024.

Micah Hanks is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of The Debrief. He can be reached by email at Follow his work at and on X: @MicahHanks.