Mimicking emerging phenomena of living organisms by chemically motile protocells


Group Leaders

Samuel Sánchez, Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) ·
Jan van Hest, Institute for Complex Molecular Systems at the Technical University of Eindhoven ·


The Smart-Nano-Bio-Devices group focuses on the development of self-propelled nanoparticles (so called nanomotors or nanobots) for nanomedicine and fundamental studies of artificial active matter.  

The use of enzyme catalysis is an emerging way to power nanomotors due to their unique features including biocompatibility, versatility and fuel bioavailability. Our group has demonstrated the use of different enzymes, including urease, catalase, lipase and glucose oxidase among others, to generate active propulsion of nano- and microparticles.  We have recently demonstrated that using enzyme-powered nanomotors can enhance anti-cancer drug delivery in vitro, improve the targeting of 3D bladder cancer spheroids and sense their surrounding environment.   

Although most of the discoveries in our group are based on inorganic nanoparticles (mesoporous silica), last year we successfully collaborated with the group from Prof. van Hest (ICMS at TU Eindhoven), demonstrating the motion of coacervate-based protocells using enzymes catalase and urease for propulsion.  

Jan van Hest works at the cutting edge of (polymer) chemistry and biomedicine. His group focuses on the design and synthesis of bio-inspired building blocks for the construction of smart compartments with life-like features. These systems are employed in  two main lines of research: nanomedicine and artificial cells and organelles. 

Moreover, van Hest’s group has been extremely successful on the chemical communication among protocells based on vesicles containing molecular signalling cascades, using both small molecules and proteins. A clear synergistic approach by integrating the motile systems (Sanchez’s lab) and polymeric protocells with communicative features (van Hest’s lab) will lead to a multidisciplinary and novel research proposal


A common feature among natural organisms is the ability to adjust their movement in response to local stimuli, which leads to synchronized directionality. Examples include schooling of fish or the collective behaviour of ants. Emergent and coherent self-organization is observed even for single cell objects such as the migration of sperms and bacteria in chemical gradients.  

Natural motile systems have been mimicked yet underexplored. Introducing this feature in motile systems would enable their self-organization to perform complex functions, much like biological organisms. Studying such out-of-the-equilibrium systems is intrinsically challenging and will require a multidisciplinary expertise from biochemistry, chemistry, chemical engineering and physics.  

In this project, we will investigate the motion of life-like systems based on synthetic protocells, their particle-particle communication mimicking predator-prey, quorum sensing and cascade reactions happening in nature.  

For this, protocells will be constructed out of vesicles and coacervates of different sizes and building blocks (@ICMS). In a first approach enzymes will be loaded or functionalized on the surface of the protocells to provide motion capabilities. In a second approach enzyme-functionalized nanomotors will be loaded inside the protocells via affinity tags. Upon activation of motility and removal of the tags, the nanomotors will be released from one protocell and specifically taken up by a second receiver. Motion of active protocells and their emerging behaviour will be analyzed (@IBEC) studying swarming, dynamic assembly and other life-like features. Fundamental studies on the signal propagation from different types of protocells will be investigated using enzyme cascade reactions. Finally, the interplay between living and artificial systems will be studied in an in vitro model where cells will secrete a chemical signal which will trigger the chemotactic action of the developed enzyme-protocells.