Scientists have created a living material that has the three signs of life

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

We often think of materials as static things, but what if they were alive?

 

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The line between man made materials and living organisms is getting more blurred as time goes by, and it just even blurrier. And in an age when we are on the cusp of creating designer organisms with six and even eight base pair DNA, not just four like we puny humans have, researchers in the US have announced that they’ve created a new type of biological material, a Bio-Material, that isn’t technically alive but it’s very close, exhibiting the three key traits for life, namely metabolism, self-assembly, and self-organisation.

 

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The material in question can crawl forward like a slime mould, growing new strands from the front as the old ones at the back decay and fall away, and the scientists have even set up races between competing material samples in the lab.

 

Watch the new living material “in action”

 

Underpinning it is a mechanism the scientists are calling DASH: DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical materials, and as with DNA in living organisms the instructions for metabolism and regeneration are encoded in the bio-material itself.

“We are introducing a brand new, life-like material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism,” says one of the team, Dan Luo from Cornell University.

“We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more life-like than have ever been seen before,” he adds.

At the core of DASH are nanoscale building blocks that can rearrange materials into polymers and eventually larger shapes, all from chains of repeating DNA just a few millimetres or hundredths of an inch long.

 

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The material is grown from a 55 nucleotide base seed sequence, which when combined with a reaction solution provides a liquid flow of energy to enable the DNA to synthesise new strands of its own.

“Everything from its ability to move and compete, all those processes are self-contained,” says Luo. “There’s no external interference. Life began billions of years from perhaps just a few kinds of molecules. This might be the same.”

This life-imitating bio-material is still very basic, but it sets the foundation for one day being able to develop robots that will have intelligence all over their bodies, and are able to construct themselves, like this one that can both self-evolve and 3D print itself, without much human involvement at all. They could even be self-replicating one day, the researchers say, as well as, obviously, self-healing.

We’ve seen in the past how bio-materials can be useful for augmenting machinery and robotics and even repairing the human body and this looks like being another important step forward for the field.

 

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Further down the line the engineers are hoping that the material might be able to be programmed to avoid or be attracted to stimuli like food and light. Greater longevity for the material is in the pipeline too, as the researchers develop DASH.

“The designs are still primitive, but they showed a new route to create dynamic machines from biomolecules,” says one of the researchers, Shogo Hamada from Cornell University. “We are at a first step of building life-like robots by artificial metabolism.”

“Even from a simple design, we were able to create sophisticated behaviours like racing. Artificial metabolism could open a new frontier in robotics.”

The research has been published in Science Robotics.

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