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Some engineered living materials can combine the strength of ordinary building materials with the responsiveness of living systems. Think of self-healing concrete, paint that changes color when a specific chemical is detected, or a material that could reproduce and fill a crack as it forms. This would revolutionize construction and maintenance, with far-reaching economic and environmental implications.

Seeing this new category of adaptive materials on consumer shelves may be a long way off. Yet early critical research from the University of Minnesota sheds new light on this exciting breakthrough, which holds promise beyond building materials, including biomedical applications.

In a new study published in Nature Communications, researchers at the College of Biological Sciences are showing how to transform silica – a material commonly used in plaster and other building materials – into a self-assembling, dynamic and resilient material.

Currently, the majority of manufactured living materials rely on adding a living component to a material. While this additive approach has its advantages, it falls short of the suction material – a product that grows, self-organizes, and heals. Other researchers managed to engineer a bacteria to produce the target material, but it could only survive under ideal laboratory conditions. This would not be enough in real world applications.

The researchers, led by Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, McKnight Emeritus Professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, used a well-studied and benign bacterium, Bacillus subtilis, which goes dormant under adverse conditions and comes back to life when conditions are favorable. For growth. This characteristic made it a strong candidate, as future products would eventually have to be stable on the shelf and easily activated. The research team then designed the bacteria and studied the optimal approach to integrate it into the structure of silica.

“The first time we saw bacteria and silica crosslink and form a rigid material, that was essential. At that point, we knew it was working, ”explains Schmidt-Dannet.

A university block M composed of modified bacteria and silica, tinged with purple by a protein produced by the bacteria.

It’s not jello. This M-block is made up of modified bacteria and silica – a material commonly used in plaster – which crosslink together. The purple hue is a protein produced by the bacteria. If the M was damaged, researchers could add nutrients and any cracks would self-heal. Credit: Dr. Sunyoung Kang, Postdoctoral Associate, Schmidt-Dannert Lab.

The results provide a framework for the design of new living engineering materials for coatings and coatings, key building materials.

The Schmidt-Danvert research team begins to study new starting materials. “We’re now interested in going beyond silica, using different cells – maybe even multiple cell types – to develop new living modified materials for a range of applications. “

The research was funded by the Department of Defense – Defense Advanced Research Project Agency – Engineered Living Materials Program (contract number HR0011-17-2-0038).

About the College of Biological Sciences

The College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota is one of two colleges in the United States dedicated to the biological sciences with undergraduate majors and graduate programs that span the spectrum of life, from molecules to ecosystems. Learn more about cbs.umn.edu.

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