Engineers at MIT have created "living materials," combining the advantages of living cells with the functionality of nonliving materials.
Living cells are able to respond to their environment, synthesize new organic compounds, and are easily scalable. While inanimate materials can offer practical benefits, like light emission or electricity.
By taking the best of both worlds -- the biotic and the inanimate -- scientists hope they'll be able to design more complex and versatile devices and technology, such as solar cells, self-healing materials, or diagnostic sensors.
"Our idea is to put the living and the nonliving worlds together to make hybrid materials that have living cells in them and are functional," said Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering at MIT. "It’s an interesting way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people do now, which is usually a top-down approach."
Lu's research into living materials is detailed in the latest issue of Nature Materials.
Lu and his fellow researchers were able to bioengineer E. coli -- outfitted with gold and tiny crystals -- to naturally create rows of gold nanowires, a network that conducts electricity.
"It shows that indeed you can make cells that talk to each other and they can change the composition of the material over time," Lu said. "Ultimately, we hope to emulate how natural systems, like bone, form. No one tells bone what to do, but it generates a material in response to environmental signals."
[Massachusetts Institute of Technology]