There's an entirely new direction for materials coming to life—specifically, a hybrid that combines the best of non-living matter with living matter. Sounds sci-fi, but it's here and it's quite promising. Researchers at MIT have found a way to coax E. Coli bacteria to latch onto inorganic materials in order to create a much more flexible and adaptable non-living material. What this means is that we get the benefit of a living cell that can easily and smartly adapt to its environment, as well as the benefit of a non-living material that can conduct electricity and emit light. Essentially, the result is a non-living material that mimics a living one.
The scientists have created bacteria that can latch onto gold nanoparticles and semiconducting crystals called quantum dots. (Quantum dots are tiny particles that can emit light in an incredibly beautiful array of glowing and very discrete colors.) This fortuitous ability to latch onto gold particles and quantum dots allows the bacteria conduct an electrical current, and emit various colors of light. The real bonus in using living material is that bacterial cells are able to communicate with each other, meaning the new material can then change based on different environmental conditions. The discovery was published in Nature Materials this week.
Currently, the MIT team has created electricity conducting nanowires, but the plan is to build more complex devices like solar cells, self-repairing materials and other kinds of sensors. The researchers hope to emulate other natural systems and materials like bone. As Timothy Lu, one of the paper's authors, says, "No one tells bone what to do, but it generates a material in response to environmental signals."
Initially, this might all seem pretty high-tech, but the trend of inserting living material into non-living material is only going to grow and the opportunities provide pretty open territory for where we want to go with this.