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In a step toward sophisticated artificial cells, scientists have engineered a silicon chip that can produce proteins from DNA, the most basic function of life.

The system, though relatively simple, suggests a path to mimicking life with partly manufactured components, says Roy Bar-Ziv, a materials scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel,  who is leading the work.

Cells constantly create proteins from instructions coded in DNA sequences. How much of each protein is made is controlled by other genes, often in complicated feedback loops. Bar-Ziv calls his cell-on-a-chip “a new system allowing us to examine how genes are turned on and off outside the living cell.”

The chips were created using a technique Bar-Ziv’s lab developed several years ago to anchor DNA to silicon by first coating the surface with a light-activated chemical. They used patterns of light to create spots where DNA binds and assembles into toothbrush-like bundles. Each DNA brush was confined to a small, round compartment. These compartments were joined by a narrow capillary 20 micrometers wide to a larger channel, which carried a flow of liquid extracts from bacterial cells—all the ingredients needed to synthesize proteins from the DNA brushes.

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