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With just an incubator and some broth, researchers can grow reusable filters made of bacteria to clean up polluted water, detect chemicals in the environment, and protect surfaces from rust and mold.

I am a synthetic biologist who studies engineered living materials — substances made from living cells that have a variety of functions. In my recently published research, I programmed bacteria to form living materials that can not only be modified for different applications but are also quick and easy to produce.

Like human cells, bacteria contain DNA that provides the instructions to build proteins. Bacterial DNA can be modified to instruct the cell to build new proteins, including ones that don’t exist in nature. Researchers can even control exactly where these proteins will be located within the cell.

Because engineered living materials are made of living cells, they can be genetically engineered to perform a broad variety of functions, almost like programming a cellphone with different apps. For example, researchers can turn bacteria into sensors for environmental pollutants by modifying them to change color in the presence of certain molecules. Researchers have also used bacteria to create limestone particles, the chemical used to make Styrofoam and living photovoltaics, among others.

A primary challenge for engineered living materials has been figuring out how to induce them to produce a matrix, or substances surrounding the cell, that allows researchers to control the physical properties of the final material, such as its viscosity, elasticity, and stiffness. To address this, my team and I created a system to encode this matrix in the bacteria’s DNA.

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