It's E.coli mixed with nonliving elements that can emit light or conduct electricity

MIT researchers are combining living and non-living ingredients to create self-assembling or self-healing materials.

According to MIT News, the MIT team combined E.coli bacteria with gold nanoparticles in an effort to make hybrid materials that are functional but also contain living cells. The idea was to make cells communicate with one another so that they can change the composition of the material over time. 

More specifically, the researchers wanted to replicate natural processes, like the way bone generates a material in response to environmental signals. 

E.coli was chosen because of its biofilms, which have sticky amyloid proteins -- called curli fibres -- that glue the bacteria on to other proteins in the body. These adhesive qualities allow other cells to stick to the E.coli and become integrated. 

A bacterial cell engineered to produce amyloid nanofibers that integrate gold nanoparticles or quantum dots (red and green spheres) [SOURCE: MIT]

An important part of this process is the extracellular CsgA protein, which is found in curli fibres and has the ability to self-assemble. When peptides are added, CsgA can be modified to collect and then self-assemble other materials. This allows engineers to control it with different "trigger" molecules. 

The E.coli was made to produce CsgA, which contains peptides made up of the amino acid histidine whenever a certain molecule is present. Histidine particles would then cling to the added gold nanoparticles, and the gold forms a network because of the self-assembly characteristics of the amino acid particles.

This made the E.coli conductive, and any number of peptides could be used to manipulate the living cell in different ways. 

Combining the living and non-living materials could create smart materials, like self-assembling/self-healing batteries, medical diagnostic sensors, and solar cells. 

"It's an interesting way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people do now, which is usually a top-down approach," said Timothy Lu, lead author on the paper. 

The paper was published in Nature Materials

Source: MIT News

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