September 30, 2015

Research group led by Kanagawa University Faculty of Science Professor Tadashi Sugawara succeeds in constructing model artificial cells capable of cell division across multiple generations

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A research group led by Tadashi Sugawara, a professor in the Faculty of Science at Kanagawa University (Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture; President: Masaru Ishizumi) and visiting fellow at the Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute (Nagakute City, Aichi Prefecture; President: Shoichiro Toyoda) has become the first in the world to succeed in constructing model cells capable of division across multiple generations.

Figure: Model of Cells Dividing across Multiple Generations

How is life created? What is the essence of life? How does it differ from matter? These are questions that everyone wonders about. Life is created from cells, with no exceptions, so if it were possible to artificially construct cells using chemical techniques, that might bring us closer to solving the mystery of life. Recently, this kind of research has attracted much attention around the world.

In a previous research project, the research team including Professor Sugawara reported that membrane sacs comprised of an artificial molecular membrane with a diameter of 3 to 10 micrometers (one-millionth of a meter), known as giant vesicles, absorbed a precursor of the membrane molecule added from the outside (food), then grew and divided themselves by producing membrane molecules from this precursor intramembraneously and, furthermore, amplified the DNA (chromosome model) inside them (Nature Chem. 2011). However, the problem was that following division, the monomers required for DNA replication were depleted, so co-operative division of the membrane and DNA, such as cell division, could no longer be performed.

The present research succeeded in restoring DNA replicative capacity inside DNA-depleted daughter cells and creating granddaughter cells by developing a method for absorbing material for DNA replication from the outside (see figure). This means that the model artificial cells were able to repeat the dynamics of cell division across multiple generations, in the same manner as actual cells.

The research discovered that during the process between division and production of the next generation, the artificial cells passed through a cycle of ingestion, replication, maturity, and division, corresponding to the cycle of actual cells. Given that model artificial cells that divide repeatedly are possible, there is increased hope that eventually, variable “species” with superior traits will appear, giving birth to model cells that evolve. The results of this research move us closer to explaining the mystery of how matter gives birth to life and provide clues to understanding how life was generated in the primordial earth and how it went from primordial life to life equipped with the germinal mechanism of evolution.

Dr. Kensuke Kurihara (a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tokyo, at that time) mainly contributed to the experimental part of this research (Currently, Resident Associate Professor of Okazaki Institute for Integrated Bioscience and Institute for Molecular Science).

The findings were published as a highlighted paper in the online academic journal Nature Communications on September 29.


K. Kurihara, Y. Okura, M. Matsuo, T. Toyota, K. Suzuki, T. Sugawara, A recursive vesicle-based model protocell with a primitive model cell cycle. Nat. Commun. 6:8352 doi: 10.1038/ncomms9352 (2015).


Professor Tadashi Sugawara



April 2013-present: Professor, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Kanagawa University

April 2013-present: Visiting Fellow, Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute

April 2012-March 2013: Specially Appointed Professor, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Kanagawa University

April 2011-present: Lecturer, Open University of Japan

June 2010: Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo

April 2010-March 2012: Specially appointed researcher, Research Center for Complex Systems Biology, University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

April 1996-March 2010: Professor, Basic Science, Department of Multi-Disciplinary Sciences, University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

June 1991-March 1996: Professor, Department of Basic Science, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo

May 1986-May 1991: Associate Professor, Department of Basic Science, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo

March 1978-April 1986: Assistant Professor, Institute for Molecular Science, Okazaki National Research Institutes

August 1977-February 1978: Postdoctoral researcher, University of Maryland, USA

September 1975-July 1977: Postdoctoral researcher, University of Minnesota, USA



2012: Received 3rd Japan Society for Molecular Science Award

2008: Received Society of Electron Spin Science and Technology Award

1986: Morino Foundation Grant for Promoting Molecular Science Research

Contact Information for Inquiries about This Research

Research-related inquiries:

Tadashi Sugawara (Professor, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Kanagawa University/Visiting Fellow, Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute)

Tel.: +81-(0)463-59-4111 (Operator), ext. 2716



Hiratsuka Research Support Office, Research Support Department, Kanagawa University

Tel: +81-(0)463-59-4111 (Operator)



Press-related inquiries:

Public Relations Office, Public Relations Department, Kanagawa University

Tel: +81-(0)45-481-5661 (Operator)
Website :

Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute
Tel: +81-(0)561-63-6141 (Operator)