Membrane molecular crowding enhances MreB polymerization to shape synthetic cells from spheres to rods

David Garenne, Albert Libchaber, Vincent Noireaux

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Executing gene circuits by cell-free transcription-translation into cell-sized compartments, such as liposomes, is one of the major bottom-up approaches to building minimal cells. The dynamic synthesis and proper self-assembly of macromolecular structures inside liposomes, the cytoskeleton in particular, stands as a central limitation to the development of cell analogs genetically programmed. In this work, we express the Escherichia coli gene mreB inside vesicles with bilayers made of lipid-polyethylene glycol (PEG). We demonstrate that two-dimensional molecular crowding, emulated by the PEG molecules at the lipid bilayer, is enough to promote the polymerization of the protein MreB at the inner membrane into a sturdy cytoskeleton capable of transforming spherical liposomes into elongated shapes, such as rod-like compartments. We quantitatively describe thismechanism with respect to the size of liposomes, lipid composition of the membrane, crowding at the membrane, and strength of MreB synthesis. So far unexplored, molecular crowding at the surface of synthetic cells emerges as an additional development with potential broad applications. The symmetry breaking observed could be an important step toward compartment self-reproduction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1902-1909
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 28 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. This work is supported by the Human Frontier Science Program Grant RGP0037/2015.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Cell-free transcription-translation
  • Molecular crowding
  • MreB cytoskeleton
  • Symmetry breaking
  • Synthetic cell

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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