UMN Researchers Develop Silica with “Engineered Living” Properties

3D illustration of self-healing material. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

In a recent study published by Nature Communications, researchers from the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota (UMN) (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA) demonstrate how silica can be transformed into a self-assembling, dynamic, and resilient material that combines the strength of conventional building materials with the responsiveness of living materials. While not yet available for widespread commercial use, these engineered living materials have potential applications as both a construction and biomedical material.

While the current additive approach of engineered living materials—in which a living component is added—has its benefits, it falls short of the aspirational model in which a product grows, self-organizes, and heals itself. To that end, a research team led by Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, a Distinguished McKnight Professor in UMN’S Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics, used well-studied and benign bacteria known as Bacillus subtilis. These bacteria proved to be a strong candidate for commercial use due to its ability to go dormant in unfavorable conditions and activate in favorable ones. Schmidt-Dannert’s team engineered the bacteria and studied the optimal approach to integrate it into the silica structure.

“The first time we saw that the bacteria and the silica were cross-linking and forming a rigid material was pivotal. At that moment, we knew it was working,” says Schmidt-Dannert.

The findings provide a framework for designing novel engineered living materials for coatings and plasters, key building materials. To address this need, the UMN research team is beginning to look at new starting materials.

“We’re now interested in going beyond silica, using different cells—maybe even multiple cell types—to develop novel engineered living materials for a range of applications,” says Schmidt-Dannert.

Source: University of Minnesota,