Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists have done what many thought was impossible. Researchers at the prestigious institute have created a material using the bacteria E. coli. The material has properties of both living and non-living beings. Lead researcher Timothy Lu, the assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering at MIT, said that the study will further help humans create self-assembling materials that can be used in biosensors and solar cells.

MIT

MIT researchers create materials that fix themselves without any outside command

The team of MIT engineers led by Prof Timothy Lu used 3-D images to design living materials. They showed than even quantum dots and gold nanoparticles can be incorporated to create living materials. These materials would respond to the environment like living cells. And they can also develop complex networks, which can be used for man-made applications. The self-healing material could be used to absorb and conduct electricity in solar cells. They are also capable of spotting tears, and can fix themselves without any outside command.

The whole process involves coaxing E. coli cells to produce biofilms that are capable of incorporating non-living materials. Lu said in a press release that he aims to put living and non-living worlds together to create hybrid materials that are functional and have living cells in them. The MIT researchers began by ‘hijacking’ the biofilm production to force E. coli to use quantum dots and gold nanoparticles.

MIT scientists demonstrate that these cells evolve and communicate

Bacteria use biofilms to adhere to surfaces, just like those in dental plaques. E. coli produce biofilms that have “curli fibers.” These fibers consist of CsgA, a chain of protein subunits that help bacteria adhere to the surface. The MIT researchers tweaked E. coli‘s DNA to develop a genetically engineered strain that will produce only under specific environmental conditions, such as in the presence of the Acyl homoserine lactone (AHL) molecules. It helped scientists control the bacteria’s biofilm production.

They then modified E. coli‘s DNA so that the new strain produces CsgA hooked with peptide containing the “histidine” amino acid. When scientists added gold nanoparticles to a mixture of the two kinds of CsgA fibers, the histidine-containing fibers attached with the gold nanoparticles and formed a network of gold nanowires. Timothy Lu said these networks can be used in biosensors and advanced computers.

Researchers also demonstrated that these bacterial cells can evolve and communicate with other bacteria, and coax them to produce histidine-tagged CsgA

For now, we can only wait to see what impact the study will have on human lives in the future.