Synthetic cells could power medical implants

October 10th, 2008 - 2:42 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 10 (IANS) Researchers have created a blueprint for synthetic cells that mimic their natural counterparts but are more powerful and efficient, possibly opening the way to power tiny medical implants. The scientists began with the question of whether an artificial version of the electrocyte - the energy-generating cells in electric eels - could be designed as a potential power source.

“The electric eel is very efficient at generating electricity,” said Jian Xu, a postdoctoral associate in Yale’s Department of Chemical Engineering. “It can generate more electricity than a lot of electrical devices.”

While he was a graduate student under former Yale assistant professor of mechanical engineering David LaVan, Xu came up with the first blueprint that shows how the electrocyte’s different ion channels work together to produce the fish’s electricity, according to an Yale release.

But the scientists didn’t stop there. “We’re still trying to understand how the mechanisms in these cells work,” said LaVan. “But we asked ourselves: ‘Do we know enough to sit down and start thinking about how to build these things?’ Nobody had really done that before.”

Using the new blueprint as a guide, LaVan and Xu set about designing an artificial cell that could replicate the electrocyte’s energy production. “We wanted to see if nature had already optimized the power output and energy conversion efficiency of this cell,” said Xu. “And we found that an artificial cell could actually outperform a natural cell, which was a very surprising result.”

These findings have appeared in advanced online version of Nature Nanotechnology.

The artificial cell LaVan and Xu modeled is capable of producing 28 percent more electricity than the eel’s own electrocyte, with 31 percent more efficiency in converting the cell’s chemical energy - derived from the eel’s food - into electricity.

Although the engineers came up with a design, it will still be some time before the artificial cells are actually built. For one thing, they still need a power source before they can start producing electricity.

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