Engineers Design ‘Living Materials’ and Open Doors for Future Energy Sources

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Is it possible for scientists to create “living cells” out of a mix of different materials? A team of engineering researchers at MIT proved that it is indeed possible. Their paper, published in Nature Materials, detailed the research that the team completed and their startling findings.

Through the use of bacteria, the researchers created what is called “biofilm” through bacteria, and then incorporated that with non-living materials like quantum dots and gold nanoparticles. The result is an actual “living cell” that can communicate with other nearby cells.

“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 and the senior author of the paper. “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.”

The team worked with the bacteria called E-Coli, because it naturally produces biofilms that contain “curli-fibers” that contain identical protein subunits called CsgA, which can be modified by adding protein fragments called peptides. These fibers work well with non-living materials and can incorporate them into their own cells.

“It’s a really simple system but what happens over time is you get curli that’s increasingly labeled by gold particles. 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 says. “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.”

Other authors on the study included the lead author Allen Chen, an MIT-Harvard MD-PhD student, postdocs Zhengtao Deng, Amanda Billings, Urartu Seker, and Bijan Zakeri; recent MIT graduate Michelle Lu; and graduate student Robert Citorik.

Lu indicates that these fibers could soon be used in batteries and solar cells, and even has the potential to be useful in converting animal waste into biofuel.

While there is still much research to be completed to see just what the capabilities of these “living cells” will be and how they could be used, it is certainly an exciting achievement. Engineering students interested in making a difference in this field of engineering have a lot to look forward to when they graduate. The ability to create cells that could perhaps change how we create and use energy is something that many students and existing engineers would like a chance at.

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