Designer organelles: scientists have created a membraneless organelle to build proteins

An illustration of a living cell to demonstrate the topic of organelles.
© iStock/Bigmouse108

Scientists at the Lemke group at EMBL have engineered the complex biological process of translation into a living cell for the first time.

The technique is to create a membraneless organelle that can build proteins from natural and synthetic amino acids which have a new function. It was created in collaboration with JGU Mainz and IMB Mainz.

Co-first author Gemma Estrada Girona explained: “The organelle can make proteins by using synthetic non-canonical amino acids. Currently we know of more than 300 different non-canonical amino acids – compared to 20 which are naturally occurring. We are no longer restricted to the latter ones. The novelty we introduce is the ability to use these in a confined space, the organelle, which minimises the effects on the host.”

The applications of designer organelles

The successful creation of these designer organelles could lead to applications such as engineering organelles to extend cell functions.

Christopher Reinkemeier, PhD student at EMBL and JGU Mainz and co-first author of the paper, said:  “Our tool can be used to engineer translation, but potentially also other cellular processes like transcription and post-translational modifications. This might even allow us to engineer new types of organelles that extend the functional repertoire of natural complex living systems.We could for example incorporate fluorescent building blocks that allow a glimpse inside the cell using imaging methods.”

Edward Lemke is the visiting group leader at EMBL, professor at JGU Mainz and Adjunct Director at the IMB. Lemke led the project and concluded: “In the end, we aim to develop a technique to engineer synthetic cellular organelles and proteins that do not affect the host machinery at all. We want to create a tool that does not have any uncharacterised effects. The organelle should be a simple add-on that allows organisms to do custom-designed novel things in a controlled fashion.”

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