We humans may control the jungle, but the plants around us have one advantage: the ability to transform sunlight into energy.
Plant power has now been harnessed in mammalian cells by scientists at China's Zhejiang University School of Medicine to enable them to produce energy when exposed to light. They revealed how they created small photosynthetic plant organelles called thylakoids and transplanted them into mammalian cells in a paper published on December 7 in Nature. They subsequently proved that the cells could halt disease progression in osteoarthritic mice models.
"Using a plant photosynthetic system to specifically supply ATP and NADPH in mammalian cells in a light-dependent manner is an exciting achievement that opens up possibilities of metabolism engineering," Francisco Cejudo, a University of Seville professor who was one of the publication's peer reviewers, said in a research summary provided by Nature.
Many diseases are caused by dysregulated cell metabolism or the production of energy for important processes such as protein synthesis. The capacity to transfer ATP and NADPH to cells to increase metabolism has various clinical uses, but it is difficult to do.
It seems logical to look to thylakoids for help. Thylakoids are photosynthesis factories that use a series of chemical reactions to turn sunlight into ATP and NADPH.
Plant cells, like mammalian cells, utilize this energy to produce proteins.
The scientist’s utilized young spinach leaves to produce nano-sized structures called nanothylakoid units to test whether thylakoids might truly deliver energy to cells from other species. When scientists cultivated them alongside mammalian cells, they discovered that when exposed to light, the units could penetrate the cells and create ATP and NADPH.
They then investigated if the units could be used to treat disease. The researchers chose to investigate osteoarthritis, a disorder in which inflammation creates deficiencies in cell energy metabolism, resulting in stiff, painful joints.
They injected mammalian cells carrying nanothylakoid units into the knee joints of arthritic mice, then irradiated the injected joints with red light for 30 minutes every three days. They repeated the tests eight and twelve weeks later to evaluate how the mice fared.
Animals implanted with the cells and exposed to red light had lower amounts of cartilage damage than control mice. This suggested that the medication was putting a stop to the sickness.
While other researchers have created artificial cells that can mimic the processes of thylakoids, this is the first time anyone has built thylakoids entirely from natural plant material, successfully transplanted them into another species, and then seen them produce energy that is not only produced within the host.
To make it conceivable, the researchers had to devise a method to prevent the immune system from attacking the thylakoids. They tried covering them with membranes from broken-down animal cells after an earlier technique to eliminate "unwanted" material failed, allowing them to sail under the immune system's radar. While the membranes of the cells injected into the animals were from chondrocytes (cells that makeup cartilage in joints), cell culture experiments showed that membranes could be made from other cell types as well.
"We believe that this study indicates that even relatively minor artificial modification of natural biomaterials can achieve specialized functionality for numerous applications," they said in a research summary published in Nature.
The researchers plan to undertake early-stage clinical trials to explore if their cells can help people with osteoarthritis. They also intend to do future studies to discover a balance between optimal photosynthesis and any cell damage induced by the creation of reactive oxygen species, which could occur as a result of excessive light exposure.
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