There is an increasing interest to express and study membrane proteins in vitro. New techniques to produce and insert functional membrane proteins into planar lipid bilayers have to be developed. In this work, we produce a tethered lipid bilayer membrane (tBLM) to provide sufficient space for the incorporation of the integral membrane protein (IMP) Aquaporin Z (AqpZ) between the tBLM and the surface of the sensor. We use a gold (Au)-coated sensor surface compatible with mechanical sensing using a quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation monitoring (QCM-D) or optical sensing using the surface plasmon resonance (SPR) method. tBLM is produced by vesicle fusion onto a thin gold film, using phospholipid-polyethylene glycol (PEG) as a spacer. Lipid vesicles are composed of 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine (POPC) and 1,2-distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphoethanolamine-N-poly(ethyleneglycol)-2000-N-[3-(2-pyridyldithio)propionate], so-called DSPE-PEG-PDP, at different molar ratios (respectively, 99.5/0.5, 97.5/2.5, and 95/5 mol %), and tBLM formation is characterized using QCM-D, SPR, and atomic force technology (AFM). We demonstrate that tBLM can be produced on the gold surface after rupture of the vesicles using an α helical (AH) peptide, derived from hepatitis C virus NS5A protein, to assist the fusion process. A cell-free expression system producing the E. coli integral membrane protein Aquaporin Z (AqpZ) is directly incubated onto the tBLMs for expression and insertion of the IMP at the upper side of tBLMs. The incorporation of AqpZ into bilayers is monitored by QCM-D and compared to a control experiment (without plasmid in the cell-free expression system). We demonstrate that an IMP such as AqpZ, produced by a cell-free expression system without any protein purification, can be incorporated into an engineered tBLM preassembled at the surface of a gold-coated sensor.

The synthesis of living entities in the laboratory is a standing challenge that calls for innovative approaches. Using a cell-free transcription-translation system as a molecular programming platform, we show that the bacteriophage T7, encoded by a 40 kbp DNA program composed of about 60 genes, can be entirely synthesized from its genomic DNA in a test tube reaction. More than a billion infectious bacteriophages T7 per milliliter of reaction are produced after a few hours of incubation. The replication of the genomic DNA occurs concurrently with phage gene expression, protein synthesis, and viral assembly. The demonstration that genome-sized viral DNA can be expressed in a test tube, recapitulating the entire chain of information processing including the replication of the DNA instructions, opens new possibilities to program and to study complex biochemical systems in vitro.

Cell-free protein synthesis is becoming a powerful technique to construct and to study complex informational processes in vitro. Engineering synthetic gene circuits in a test tube, however, is seriously limited by the transcription repertoire of modern cell-free systems, composed of only a few bacteriophage regulatory elements. Here, we report the construction and the phenomenological characterization of synthetic gene circuits engineered with a cell-free expression toolbox that works with the seven E. coli sigma factors. The E. coli endogenous holoenzyme E(70) is used as the primary transcription machinery. Elementary circuit motifs, such as multiple stage cascades, AND gate and negative feedback loops are constructed with the six other sigma factors, two bacteriophage RNA polymerases, and a set of repressors. The circuit dynamics reveal the importance of the global mRNA turnover rate and of passive competition-induced transcriptional regulation. Cell-free reactions can be carried out over long periods of time with a small-scale dialysis reactor or in phospholipid vesicles, an artificial cell system. This toolbox is a unique platform to study complex transcription/translation-based biochemical systems in vitro.

The physical interaction between the cytoskeleton and the cell membrane is essential in defining the morphology of living organisms. In this study, we use a synthetic approach to polymerize bacterial MreB filaments inside phospholipid vesicles. When the proteins MreB and MreC are expressed inside the liposomes, the MreB cytoskeleton structure develops at the inner membrane. Furthermore, when purified MreB is used inside the liposomes, MreB filaments form a 4-10 μm rigid bundle structure and deform the lipid vesicles in physical contact with the vesicle inner membrane. These results indicate that the fibrillation of MreB filaments can take place either in close proximity of deformable lipid membrane or in the presence of associated protein. Our finding might be relevant for the self-assembly of cytoskeleton filaments toward the construction of artificial cell systems.

This article describes the state and the development of an artificial cell project. We discuss the experimental constraints to synthesize the most elementary cell-sized compartment that can self-reproduce using synthetic genetic information. The original idea was to program a phospholipid vesicle with DNA. Based on this idea, it was shown that in vitro gene expression could be carried out inside cell-sized synthetic vesicles. It was also shown that a couple of genes could be expressed for a few days inside the vesicles once the exchanges of nutrients with the outside environment were adequately introduced. The development of a cell-free transcription/translation toolbox allows the expression of a large number of genes with multiple transcription factors. As a result, the development of a synthetic DNA program is becoming one of the main hurdles. We discuss the various possibilities to enrich and to replicate this program. Defining a program for self-reproduction remains a difficult question as nongenetic processes, such as molecular self-organization, play an essential and complementary role. The synthesis of a stable compartment with an active interface, one of the critical bottlenecks in the synthesis of artificial cell, depends on the properties of phospholipid membranes. The problem of a self-replicating artificial cell is a long-lasting goal that might imply evolution experiments.

Cell-free protein synthesis is becoming a serious alternative to cell-based protein expression. Cell-free systems can deliver large amounts of cytoplasmic recombinant proteins after a few hours of incubation. Recent studies have shown that membrane proteins can be also expressed in cell-free reactions and directly inserted into phospholipid membranes. In this work, we present a quantitative method to study in real time the concurrent cell-free expression and insertion of membrane proteins into phospholipid bilayers. The pore-forming protein α-hemolysin, fused to the reporter protein eGFP, was used as a model of membrane protein. Cell-free expression of the toxin in solution and inside large synthetic phospholipid vesicles was measured by fluorometry and fluorescence microscopy respectively. A quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation was used to characterize the interaction of the protein with a supported phospholipid bilayer. The cell-free reaction was directly incubated onto the bilayer inside the microbalance chamber while the frequency and the dissipation signals were monitored. The presence of pores in the phospholipid bilayer was confirmed by atomic force microscopy. A model is presented which describes the kinetics of adsorption of the expressed protein on the phospholipid bilayer. The combination of cell-free expression, fluorescence microscopy and quartz crystal microbalance-dissipation is a new quantitative approach to study the interaction of membrane proteins with phospholipid bilayers.

A large amount of recombinant proteins can be synthesized in a few hours with Escherichia coli cell-free expression systems based on bacteriophage transcription. These cytoplasmic extracts are used in many applications that require large-scale protein production such as proteomics and high throughput techniques. In recent years, cell-free systems have also been used to engineer complex informational processes. These works, however, have been limited by the current available cell-free systems, which are not well adapted to these types of studies. In particular, no method has been proposed to increase the mRNA inactivation rate and the protein degradation rate in cell-free reactions. The construction of in vitro informational processes with interesting dynamics requires a balance between mRNA and protein synthesis (the source), and mRNA inactivation and protein degradation (the sink).

Escherichia coli cell-free expression systems use bacteriophage RNA polymerases, such as T7, to synthesize large amounts of recombinant proteins. These systems are used for many applications in biotechnology, such as proteomics. Recently, informational processes have been reconstituted in vitro with cell-free systems. These synthetic approaches, however, have been seriously limited by a lack of transcription modularity. The current available cell-free systems have been optimized to work with bacteriophage RNA polymerases, which put significant restrictions to engineer processes related to biological information. The development of efficient cell-free systems with broader transcription capabilities is required to study complex informational processes in vitro.