There were just eight ingredients: two proteins, three buffering agents, two types of fat molecule and some chemical energy. But that was enough to create a flotilla of bouncing, pulsating blobs — rudimentary cell-like structures with some of the machinery necessary to divide on their own.

To biophysicist Petra Schwille, the dancing creations in her lab represent an important step towards building a synthetic cell from the bottom up, something she has been working towards for the past ten years, most recently at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany.

“I have always been fascinated by this question, ‘What distinguishes life from non-living matter?’” she says. The challenge, according to Schwille, is to determine which components are needed to make a living system. In her perfect synthetic cell, she’d know every single factor that makes it tick.

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