Published: 24 November 2020
Collective decision making by living cells is facilitated by exchange of diffusible signals where sender cells release a chemical signal that is interpreted by receiver cells. A variety of nonliving artificial cell models have been developed in recent years that mimic various aspects of diffusion-based intercellular communication. However, localized secretion of diffusive signals from individual protocells, which is critical for mimicking biological sender–receiver systems, has remained challenging to control precisely. Here, we engineer light-responsive, DNA-encoded sender–receiver architectures, where protein–polymer microcapsules act as cell mimics and molecular communication occurs through diffusive DNA signals. We prepare spatial distributions of sender and receiver protocells using a microfluidic trapping array and set up a signaling gradient from a single sender cell using light, which activates surrounding receivers through DNA strand displacement. Our systematic analysis reveals how the effective signal range of a single sender is determined by various factors including the density and permeability of receivers, extracellular signal degradation, signal consumption, and catalytic regeneration. In addition, we construct a three-population configuration where two sender cells are embedded in a dense array of receivers that implement Boolean logic and investigate spatial integration of nonidentical input cues. The results offer a means for studying diffusion-based sender–receiver topologies and present a strategy to achieve the congruence of reaction-diffusion and positional information in chemical communication systems that have the potential to reconstitute collective cellular patterns.
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