To understand a virus, scientists must decode its structure. However, when the virus is highly pathogenic, it can be dangerous to work with the virus.On Tuesday, new research by a research team at the Weizmann Institute of Science was published in the peer-reviewed Nature Nanotechnology journal that demonstrates one way to overcome this challenge: artificial cells. The research was performed by Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv and staff scientist Dr. Shirley Shulman Daube, with the help of former research student Dr. Ohad Vonshak and current student Yiftach Divon.The researchers produced artificial cells that are made of micrometer-sized compartments etched into a silicon chip. At the bottom of each compartment, the scientists affixed DNA strands, packing them densely. The edges of the artificial cells were carpeted with receptors that can capture the proteins produced within the cells. To begin with, the scientists flooded their cells with everything needed to make proteins – molecules and enzymes needed to read the DNA information and translate it into proteins. Then, with no further human intervention, the receptor carpet trapped one of the proteins produced in the bottom of the cells, with the rest of the viral proteins binding to one another, producing structures that the scientists had earlier “programmed” into the system. In this case, they created assorted small parts of a virus that infect bacteria (bacteriophages). “We discovered that we can control the assembly process – both the efficiency and the final products – through the design of the artificial cells," said Bar-Ziv in a release. "This included the cells’ geometric structure, and the placement and organization of the genes. These all determine which proteins will be produced and, down the line, what will be made from these proteins once they are assembled."The features of the system developed at the institute – including the ability to produce different small parts of a single virus at once, could give scientists a new tool for evaluating tests, drugs and vaccines against particular viruses. “Since these are miniaturized artificial cells, we can place a great many of them on a single chip," Vonshak added in the release. "We can alter the design of various cells, so that diverse tasks are performed at different locations on the same chip." And because the artificial parts do not include the use of actual viruses, Divon explained, they would be especially safe from beginning to end.And what about applicability? Another possible application, said Shulman Daube, could be "the development of a chip that could rapidly and efficiently conduct thousands of medical tests all at once."