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.