Unlocking the Future Potential of Living Materials

7/19 Pratt School of Engineering

Researchers across campus aim to harness bacteria to engineer adaptive living materials

intricate structural details of a living leaf (left) and a bunch of 3D rectangles of various colors making a large structure
Unlocking the Future Potential of Living Materials

Duke Engineering launched the Beyond the Horizon initiative to provide interdisciplinary teams with substantial investment to begin pursuing extremely high-risk, high-reward projects that have the potential for deep, transformative societal impact. Six proposals were selected for an initial round of funding that will play key roles in shaping Duke Engineering’s future research and teaching profile. Each plays to the school’s unique strengths and hold the promise of helping to define the future of their respective fields.

The abilities of living organisms to adapt to their environment continues to inspire researchers to push the envelope in developing new adaptive material design strategies. Biological materials effortlessly self-assemble in ambient conditions, display traits such as adaptability, self-healing and unparalleled performance, and surpass the limitations of conventional, human-engineered devices.

 “Living organisms self-assemble into active, adaptive and self-healing structures. And so the question is, could we not harness bacteria to  make active and adaptive materials?”

-Stefan Zauscher, Co-Director, Duke Materials Initiative, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

A collaboration between researchers in the engineering departments at Pratt, in conjunction with an expert from Trinity’s Physics department, aims to spearhead the development of living materials that possess hierarchical structures and the ability to dynamically morph. The team envisions this work paving the way for an array of transformative applications in intelligent soft robotics, adaptive materials for energy and carbon capture and for distributive sensing.

Imagine applications like biomedical diagnostics on a cellular level, environmental sensing and cleanup, and cutting-edge “active wear” that enhances health, wellness, performance, exploration and defense.

Led by Stefan Zauscher, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and co-director of the Duke Materials Initiative (DMI), and drawing upon Duke’s existing strengths in microbiology, synthetic biology and soft robotics, the team of investigators aspire to position the university as a global leader in this burgeoning field of utilizing bacteria to design new materials. 

“Living organisms self-assemble into active, adaptive and self-healing structures. And so the question is, could we not harness bacteria to make active and adaptive materials?” said Zauscher about his team’s research.

“The idea is that if we can connect these self-organized pattern formations with certain soft materials that can respond to bacterial growth and how they change the chemical environment, then we can potentially translate the patterns engineered by the bacteria or caused by the bacteria,” said Lingchong You, the James L. Meriam Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering and one of the project’s Co-PI’s. 

“There are some obvious advantages of living organisms–that they grow, they self-organize, they adapt, they can sense, they can react to signals and accomplish all these things that technical materials usually don’t.”

-CHRISTOPH SCHMIDT, THE HERTHA SPONER DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, CO-DIRECTOR OF DMI

To harness the innate self-awareness of biology to engineer adaptive materials, their project will concentrate on understanding and developing the processes to enable the creation of sensing and morphing materials through living organisms.

They will begin by developing a radical method to fabricate engineered living materials using cultures of bacteria that have been genetically programmed–the bacteria will be cultivated within a polymer matrix, either on its surface or embedded within it.

“There are some obvious advantages of living organisms–that they grow, they self-organize, they adapt, they can sense, they can react to signals and accomplish all these things that technical materials usually don’t,” said Christoph Schmidt, the Hertha Sponer Distinguished Professor of Physics, co-director of DMI, and another of the project’s Co-PI’s.

These genetically programmed bacteria will have the ability to sense chemical and physical signals, process the information received, and then self-assemble or transform into specific structures.

They will achieve this by exerting force and motion through changes in internal pressure gradients or by releasing substances that activate polymers that respond to stimuli in the surrounding environment. 

According to Zauscher and his team, harnessing this capability will allow researchers to create materials with complex engineering functionalities, in a way that is versatile, adaptive and sustainable. 

The potential of living fabrication is transformative, as it offers an environmentally-friendly approach to device production, and it’s an approach Zauscher and his team hope future engineers can participate in.

Discover More About All Six Beyond the Horizon Projects