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Engineered Living Materials

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Can we create a world of living materials that have the characteristics of biological systems: self-replication, self-regulation, self-healing, environmental responsiveness and self-sustainability?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Engineered Living Materials (ELMs) are defined as engineered materials composed of living cells that form or assemble the material itself or modulate the functional performance of the material in some manner. In ELMs, the living cells can act as foundries for the production of molecular building blocks, templates for a desired material morphology, or they can maintain the material’s properties. A significant advantage of ELMs is that they do not have to be confined to conventional biopolymers and biomaterials that have been produced by Nature. Instead, a fuller range of chemical and materials space can be explored to produce materials with previously unachievable properties. At present, ELMs are an emerging sub-discipline whose foundations are just being laid through collaboration between synthetic biologists and materials scientists. The proposed Big Idea would push the boundaries and frontiers of synthetic biology, materials engineering, nanotechnology, biomaterials, artificial intelligence and directed evolution into new realms.

One of the previous Big Ideas revolved around the Rules of Life, underscoring humans’ quest to understand biology’s framework for building cells, and using this knowledge to create forms of synthetic life. The advancement of living materials would be highly complementary to this effort, and build on its successes to extend these rules beyond individual cells and into multi-cellular hierarchies with defined morphologies.

Cellular engineering is at the heart of ELMs, as the cells are the factories that produce polymers and direct their assembly into higher order structures. Although recent advances in synthetic biology have enabled researchers to engineer living cells in a somewhat modular fashion, the application of these principles to programmed structure building and morphogenesis remains in its infancy. Nevertheless, the successes of synthetic biology in revolutionizing the biomanfacture of certain biomolecules, biopolymers, drugs and biofuels could serve as a important template for the advancement of ELMs. Surprisingly, synthetic biology for materials engineering is by and large unexplored terrain, in spite of the tremendous opportunities for fundamental research and ground-breaking technological applications.

The road to ELMs can be strategically broken down to tasks of increasing complexity. First, we need to develop novel design principles to create de novo synthetic biological materials with a wide variety of functional properties namely electrical, mechanical, optical and so forth. A second challenge involves the development of genetic programs and fabrication techniques that ensure the survivability, metabolic activity, and proliferative capacity of the cells over the lifetime of the material. Third, biological circuits that can automatically regulate the production of targeted materials based on the requirement as well as in response to external environmental factors should be developed. Fourth, the developed material should exhibit self-healing capabilities and thereby heal cracks or defects using built-in biological circuits. A fifth challenge is to incorporate self-sustaining capabilities for the engineered material by interfacing its energy feedstock with renewable sources or with other living entities, for example photosynthetic organisms. Sixth, the living material must have symbiotic co-existence in its surrounding eco-system and should not have any harmful implications. Seventh, the most challenging task would be to assimilate all the above characteristics into a single living material. Eight, such living materials can then be subjected to directed evolution to get higher efficiencies and performances.

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