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University of Basel

01 March 2017

Researchers Imitate Molecular Crowding in Cells

Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.

The cell interior is densely crowded with hundreds of thousands of macromolecules like proteins, DNA, RNA and smaller molecules forming viscous water solution. In science, this constriction is called “molecular crowding”. The effect can lead to fundamental changes in several of a molecule's characteristics.

nanoreactors, enzymes, organelles, molecular crowding<br/>
Enzymatic reaction inside a nanoreactor, on the left in absence and of a crowding agent and on the right with molecular crowding. © University of Basel, Department of Chemistry

The behavior of a “free” protein or enzyme in a test tube does not necessarily follow natural processes, as the cell provides high viscos environment and confined space. In the lab, it had previously only been possible to simulate confined space but not crowded milieu simultaneously.

Imitating mother nature

A team of researchers led by Professor Wolfgang Meier of the University of Basel has now developed a system that comes a significant step closer to the natural model, as for the first time it simulated the crowding effect inside a closed vesicle. “The environment inside a cell has a major effect on the chemical reactions that take place there, so we wanted to copy this in a way coming close to nature as possible,” said Professor Meier.

NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering

Molecular Systems Engineering is a National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and headed by the University of Basel and ETH Zurich. It combines the disciplines of chemistry, biology and physics with bioinformatics and engineering. The scientific aim is to synthesize molecular modules and assemble them in molecular factories approaching the complexity of a cell. These molecular factories will be used for industrial production or to control cellular systems in the field of medicine.

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