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'Living Materials' Are Reality Now

Update Date: Mar 24, 2014 09:59 AM EDT

MIT engineers have coaxed bacterial cells to produce biofilms that can incorporate nonliving materials. These 'living materials' will combine the advantage of live cells such as producing complex biological molecules and nonliving materials that are capable of conducting electricity or emitting light. 

These 'living materials' are a matrix of minerals and other substances including living 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 in a press release. "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."

Scientists believe that the approach could one day be used to design more complex devices like solar cells, self-healing materials and diagnostic sensors. 

The developed cells are also capable of co-ordinating with each other ultimately controlling the composition of the biofilm. The cells have been designed to produce untagged CsgA and AHL which then stimulates other cells to start producing to start producing histidine-tagged CsgA.

"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 added. "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."

The paper has been published in the March 23 issue of Nature Materials

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