Various protocell models have been constructed de novo
with the bottom-up approach. Here we describe a silica-based protocell composed of a nanoporous amorphous silica core encapsulated within a lipid bilayer built by self-assembly that provides for independent definition of cell interior and the surface membrane. In this review, we will first describe the essential features of this architecture and then summarize the current development of silica-based protocells at both micro- and nanoscale with diverse functionalities. As the structure of the silica is relatively static, silica-core protocells do not have the ability to change shape, but their interior structure provides a highly crowded and, in some cases, authentic scaffold upon which biomolecular components and systems could be reconstituted. In basic research, the larger protocells based on precise silica replicas of cells could be developed into geometrically realistic bioreactor platforms to enable cellular functions like coupled biochemical reactions, while in translational research smaller protocells based on mesoporous silica nanoparticles are being developed for targeted nanomedicine. Ultimately we see two different motivations for protocell research and development: (1) to emulate life in order to understand it; and (2) to use biomimicry to engineer desired cellular interactions.
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