Scientists at MIT have created a new type of life, blending microscopic, nonorganic gold particles and so-called “quantum dots” with living cells for the first time. The researchers, whose work was published in the journal Nature Materials, engineered cellular circuits capable of, among other things, “[creating] an environmentally responsive biofilm-based electrical switch.” Sounds like science fiction gobbledygook, but it’s real. Quartz has more:
[Researchers] first demonstrated the process with gold nanoparticles. When they were introduced into a biofilm with the right kind of protein fibers, the bacteria would grab onto the fibers and create working circuits. But his team thinks that lots of nonliving molecules—other types of metals and even organic conductors of electricity like graphene, for example—could be integrated using the same methods. […]“When you look around the natural world,” lead author Timothy Lu told Quartz, “you can see that biology has done a great job of designing unique materials. But in our day-to-day lives, we use materials that aren’t alive in any way.” These plastics, he says, require lots of energy to make and use. “The goal,” he says, “is to find a way to engineer living cells so you can make them into materials you might not find naturally.”
Biomimicry has guided many technological advances, if only because nature is such a ruthless innovator. But combining the organic with the non-living takes technological progress to a whole new level. This is the first step toward creating “smart cells,” and these new materials could be used in more efficient solar panels, better batteries, or stronger, self-repairing adhesives.Eventually, we could even replace factories by growing increasingly complicated products as crops. These “factory fields” would cut out the inefficient conversion of sunlight into electricity (through photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, or the like), which is then used in a separate manufacturing process. The applications for increasingly sophisticated biotech are as varied as they are game-changing, and we’d be better off diverting more money toward their development, and away from the subsidization of current-generation technologies.