What are artificial cells?

The phrase“artificial cell”lacks a universally known and accepted meaning. So, before we can propose guidelines for artificial cell research and development, we need to agree on what we mean by the term. We also must clarify how artificial cells are like and unlike the products of synthetic biology and nanotechnology.

We will not provide a complete precise definition of artificial cells. Discussions of artificial cells often appeal to distinctions like“bottom-up”vs.“top-down,”or“grounded in chemistry”vs.“grounded in biology.”But these are too vague to delineate the relevant distinctions in a rapidly developing field, and they fail to emphasize artificial cells’special characteristics. Fortunately, perfect definitions are not needed here because social and ethical implications of artificial cells typically turn on broad conceptions rather than definitional details. Since an exhaustive catalog of different views is orthogonal to our present purposes, we will concentrate only on the main conceptions of artificial cells.

Created through human artifice but not by merely manipulating a natural living organism (such as a bacterium), an artificial cell is a self-assembling and self-reproducing chemical system, with the following properties:

1. It maintains its identity over time by spatially localizing its components. This spatial localization is a form of containment.
2. It utilizes free energy from its environment and digests environmental resources in order to maintain itself, grow, and ultimately reproduce. This use of energy and materials is a form of metabolism.
3. The containment and metabolism are under the control of replicable and inheritable chemical information that can be“mutated”when the artificial cell reproduces. This informational chemistry functions as a programmable genetic system.

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