Controlled Hybrid Material Synthesis using Synthetic Biology
The concept of creating a hybrid material is motivated by the development of an improved product with acquired properties by amalgamation of components with specific desirable traits. These new attributes can range from improvements upon existing properties, such as strength and durability, to the acquisition of new abilities, such as magnetism and conductivity. Currently, the concept of an organic-inorganic hybrid material typically describes the integration of an inorganic polymer with organically derived proteins. By building on this idea and applying the advanced technologies available today, it is possible to combine living and nonliving components to synthesize functional materials possessing unique abilities of living cells such as self-healing, evolvability, and adaptability. Furthermore, artificial gene regulation, achievable through synthetic biology, allows for an additional dimension of the control of hybrid material function.
Here, I genetically engineer E. coli with a tightly controlled artificial protein construct, allowing for inducible expression of different amounts of the surface anchored protein by addition of varying concentrations of L-arabinose. The presence of the surface protein allows the cells to bind nonliving nanoparticle substrates, effectively turning the cells into living crosslinkers. By using the living crosslinker, I was able to successfully synthesize a robust, macroscale living-nonliving hybrid material with magnetic characteristics. Furthermore, by varying the particle size and inducer concentration, the resulting material exhibited alterations in structure and function. Finally, I was able to manipulate material kinetics within a PDMS channel by applying fluctuating magnetic fields and demonstrate material durability. These results demonstrate the ability to manipulate synthesis of living-nonliving hybrid materials, which demonstrate the potential for use in promising applications in areas such as environmental monitoring and micromachining. Additionally, this work serves as a foundational step toward the integration of synthetic biology with tissue engineering by exploiting the possibility of controlling material properties with genetic engineering.