MIT scientists have harnessed the power of bacteria to create a slew of new hybrid resources that combine the benefits of living, organic materials with those of nonliving ones.
Many useful materials in nature like bone or wood are made up of a mix of materials both living and nonliving, and the new MIT biofilms can utilize nonliving materials like gold to conduct electricity or emit light, according to MIT News
. The research was published in the March 23 issue of academic journal "Nature Materials."
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In the future, many never-before-seen materials might not come out of the ground or out of a mill, but rather grown in batches in a large-scale factory lab. These materials could create more efficient solar panels, biosensors, glues, and more, according to the research team.
"When you look around the natural world, you can see that biology has done a great job of designing unique materials. But in our day-to-day lives, we use materials that aren’t alive in any way," lead study author Timothy Lu told Quartz
The new class of materials he describes would supersede some of the limitations of the mostly non-living materials we use today, like metal, lumber, adobe, and plastic.
"The goal is to find a way to engineer living cells so you can make them into materials you might not find naturally," he said.
In one instance in the study, the bioengineers modified E. coli bacteria to conduct electricity.
E. coli naturally produces biofilms that contain so-called "curli fibers," proteins that help it attach to surfaces like Velcro. The bioengineers were able to modify the bacteria to accept and incorporate gold nanoparticles, creating a net of gold nanowires that could conduct electricity.
"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," said Lu.
In the iconic 1967 film "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman's character is given a bit of advice after graduating college by an older family friend: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics." In a 2014 version, the word very well may be "biofilms."
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