A Dynamic Material Powered By Its Own Artificial Metabolism

  • Researchers develop a new kind of biomaterial using artificial DNA as its base. 
  • It has all lifelike properties, including metabolism and the ability to self-assemble and organize. 

All living organisms maintain themselves by generating new cells and removing old ones. The two major components of self-sustainability are biosynthesis and biodegradation.

Materials that contain life are synthesized, arranged, dissipated and decomposed automatically in a hierarchical, controlled manner. So far, scientists haven’t been able to construct such materials from scratch by mimicking metabolism based on bioengineering.

However, there exist a number of techniques that enable the construction of lifelike material in a synthetic manner, analogous to part of metabolism. Inspired by such techniques, researchers at Cornell University have reported a bottom-up construction of dynamic biomaterials with properties of living things.

This new DNA material features all 3 key traits of life – metabolism, self-assembly, and organization. They haven’t invented something that is alive, but a lifelike material concept that hasn’t been seen before.

Creating Lifelike Material From Scratch

The team used a special material called DASH (DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical) to construct a biomaterial with metabolism, self-assembly and self-organizing capabilities.

This new dynamic material can autonomously evolve from its tiny (atomic scale) building blocks and organize itself — initially into polymers and ultimately mesoscale structures.

Reference: Science Robotics | DOI:10.1126/scirobotics.aaw3512 | Cornell University

Researchers began with a base seed sequence and multiplied the DNA molecules hundreds of thousands of times, producing a millimeter-size chain of repeating DNA. To provide essential building blocks for biosynthesis and liquid flow energy, they injected the reaction solution in a microfluidic device.

From there, the DNA started synthesizing its own strands: the material’s front end started growing while its tail started degrading, optimizing the balance. This led material creep forward against the flow, creating its own locomotion.

Material with its Own Artificial MetabolismCredit: Cornell University 

The team then made different sets of the material compete against each other in a race. The winners were selected by the randomness of the system instead of the inherent advantages of specific shapes.

This biomaterial can last for 2 cycles of synthesis and degradation before expiring. Its longevity could be further extended, which may result in subsequent lifelike material ‘generations’ as it self-replicates.

What’s Next?

Although designs are primitive, they demonstrate a new way of developing dynamic machines from biomolecules. Researchers were able to build complex behaviors such as racing, from a simple design.

Artificial metabolism can also open new doors in robotics. Researchers are now trying to create a material that can respond to stimuli such as food or light, and perhaps even identify danger.

Read: New Bioreactor Uses Tiny Pieces of Heart Tissue To Mimic Beating Heart

Overall, the findings show that it’s possible to create biomaterials that can self-evolve, creating better and better versions of themselves. It could also be used to produce new nanomaterials, proteins, and identify pathogens.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is an experienced science and technology journalist interested in machines, AI, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out what his latest project is, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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