New Living Materials Can Change Properties Over Time

A new technique that mixes bacterial cells with minerals and other compounds could lead to the development of self-healing sensors and more.

MIT, material, biology, nanoparticlesIn the near future materials manufacturers and engineers might be able to create stronger, more adaptive products by leveraging a cell’s ability to respond to its environment.

In a paper recently published in Nature Materials, MIT researchers detail creating “living materials” by combining E. Coli cells with gold-nanoparticles and quantum.

“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,” says Timothy Lu, an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Biological Engineering. “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.”

Using their novel, biological bottom-up technique, researchers were able to coax their bacteria into creating a biofilm that can attach to surrounding nanoparticles and produce a composite with the ability to respond to local conditions.

Key to the MIT team’s results was their choice of bacteria. E. Coli is a natural biofilm factory. Aside from producing copious amounts of film, the bacteria’s product contains amyloid proteins called “curli fibers.” These fibers give the organism the ability to attach to surfaces, including new substances that can endow the biofilm with complimentary properties.

During experiments, Lu and his team were able to create living composites that spanned “multiple length scales,” could conduct electricity and had the ability to emit light. Aside from adapting to the properties of nanoparticles in their vicinity, the bacterial nucleuses of these materials were also programmed to communicate with one another. Given their ability to exchange signals, the materials demonstrated they could alter the composition of their biofilms over time, essentially changing the material’s properties.

Though still far from a mature technology, researchers believe their new living-materials have applications in the battery and solar cell field, but honestly, the applications for this type of technology are nearly inexhaustible. With the ability to change states, a living material could be programmed to build any number of complex electronic or biological systems. What’s more, the same material could be engineered to have self-healing properties.

In the end, however, living materials could most dramatically impact the manufacturing industry as a whole. Creating a material that could leverage the reproductive power of life might bring about new techniques for product fabrication, after-market upgrades and overall product efficiency.

Image Courtesy of MIT