Bridging the gap between the living and nonliving world to create “living materials” is a concept that fuels a substantial amount of research in synthetic biology today. The goal is to tap into biological systems with the hope of finding solutions for human problems. Bacteria may offer us a powerful platform to discover those very solutions due to their ability to store data, clean dangerous waste, produce film-like images, and even make renewable fuel. The applications and implications within synthetic biology are very wide-reaching and even has the potential to impact the security of our energy, water and food! Well, a group of MIT engineers have recently published research that devises a way to combine a living E. coli cell with nonliving building blocks, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots, to create a hybrid material that responds to their environment.
“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. 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” – Timothy Lu, Assistant professor of biological engineering at MIT
Self-Assembling Materials and Communicating Cells
These findings are particularly pivotal because it can exemplify the potential in the new approach to produce solar cells, self healing materials, or diagnostic sensors. E. coli is a common starting point because it naturally produces biofilms that contain curli fibers – proteins that help E. coli attach to surfaces. By modifying the peptides on the surface of the biofilm, they can capture nonliving materials and incorporate them into the biofilms. With this approach, Lu and his colleagues are also able to program the cells in order to control the biofilms’ properties and automatically create gold nanowires, conducting biofilms, and films studded with quantum dots that exhibit quantum mechanical properties such as conducting electricity.
The most significant property of these materials is their ability to communicate with each other and respond to their environment. Communication between cells is a very crucial property to have when engineering these hybrid materials. The aim is to imitate natural systems and how they form. An ideal example of this type of phenomena is found in bone formation. The proposed hybrid materials can communicate and coordinate with each other to control the composition of the biofilm and respond to environmental signals. Right now, this research can be utilized to explore it’s use in energy applications, such as batteries and solar panels, and in the converting of agricultural waste to biofuel. In the future, we may see this technique used to produce living diagnostic devices and scaffolding for tissue engineering. We may even see this technology in combination with 3-D printing to take what is known as “bioprinting” to the next level!
For more Synthetic Biology news, take a moment to read about the MIT Synthetic Biology Center’s three-year collaboration with Pfizer.