Creation of Programmable Artificial Tissues from Synthetic Cells

Scientists have created new artificial tissues that mimic some of the complex characteristics and abilities of living tissues, paving the way towards unprecedented advances in medicine, soft-robotics, and micro-engineering.

Above – Photograph of a floating mould containing a protocellular material in the shape of a triangle with 1.0 cm sides being lifted from a Petri dish. Credit: Dr Pierangelo Gobbo and Dr Agostino Galanti

They can produce centimetre-sized artificial tissues of any shape and with complex internal structures.

A team, led by Dr Pierangelo Gobbo from the university’s School of Chemistry, developed the new technique and used it to assemble millions of sticky synthetic cells, called “protocells”, into artificial tissues capable of communicating with each other as well as with their external environment. Previously protocells have been worked with individually, but the scientists found that when the cells were combined in a group to form protocellular materials they interacted together and showed advanced capabilities.

Fluorescence microscopy image of the triangular protocellular material above. The red and green colours identify the two types of complementary adhesive protocells that compose the artificial tissue.
Credit – Dr Pierangelo Gobbo and Dr Agostino Galanti

The innovative method, called the “floating mould technique”, allowed the team to create free-standing protocellular materials of any size and shape. It also facilitated the assembly of patterned and layered protocellular materials through the careful arrangement of different types of protocells.

The team then specifically programmed the behaviour of the protocells comprising the material so that when waves of chemicals were sent into the environment, the protocells responded together and it was possible to extract important physical and chemical information from their collective reaction. This could, for instance, lead to a new method to study how a drug moves and distributes inside living tissues.

The team indicate in future it could be possible to graft protocellular materials onto organs to provide targeted therapies, or to use these artificial tissues as organoids to closely replicate in vivo environments for drug screenings and reducing animal testing. The tissues could also be used to assemble the next generation of soft robots fuelled by chemicals available in the environment.

Lead author Dr Agostino Galanti said: “These exciting breakthroughs take synthetic cells to the next level, heralding important new potential in a wide range of industries. Our protocellular materials are robust, stable in water and are also capable of combining the special attributes of individual protocells with the new enhanced capabilities they take on when combined together in group formations.”

Agostino Galanti et al. A Floating Mold Technique for the Programmed Assembly of Protocells into Protocellular Materials Capable of Non‐Equilibrium Biochemical Sensing, Advanced Materials (2021). DOI: 10.1002/adma.202100340


Despite important breakthroughs in bottom-up synthetic biology have recently been achieved, a major challenge still remains the construction of free-standing, macroscopic and robust materials from protocell building blocks that are stable in water and capable of emergent behaviours. Herein we report a new floating mould technique for the fabrication of millimetre- to centimetre-sized protocellular materials (PCMs) of any shape that overcomes most of the current challenges in prototissue engineering. Significantly, this technique also allowed us to generate 2D periodic arrays of PCMs that displayed an emergent non-equilibrium spatiotemporal sensing behaviour. These arrays were capable of collectively translating the information provided by the external environment and encoded in the form of propagating reaction-diffusion fronts into a readable dynamic signal output. Overall, our methodology opens up a route to the fabrication of macroscopicand robust tissue-like materials with emergent behaviours, providing a new paradigm of bottom-up synthetic biology and biomimetic materials science.

SOURCES – Advanced Materials, Bristol University
Written by Brian Wang, Nextbigfuture