Bioengineers build intelligent materials

Bioengineers build intelligent materials

Molecular biologists from Freiburg have constructed intelligent materials from biological modules that can absorb and process information.

In Synthetic Biology, researchers assemble systems with completely new properties from biological modules.

The digitalisation process is continuing and does not stop at everyday objects and materials: intelligent clothing measures our oxygen and energy consumption and pea-sized measuring spheres can be used to control the water quality or the processes in bioreactors. Researchers at the University of Freiburg have now further developed such measuring characteristics of materials. The resulting material systems consisting of biological components and polymer materials are not only capable of perceiving information, but can also process it and send impulses based on this information. These so-called biohybrid systems are able to control the release of further molecules, for example enzymes in bioreactors, both in terms of time and concentration.

Transferring biological signal processing to materials

The starting point for the Freiburg molecular biologists was signal processing, which is an important component of all organisms, whether bacteria, plants or humans. Signal processing is also essential for electrical systems such as computers. In living organisms, the signals are recognised, processed and passed on within the cells. The Freiburg bioengineers have made use of molecular signal transduction and transferred it to different materials. "With our current understanding of the components and biological signalling processes, we are now able to transfer the biological modules from synthetic biology to materials," explains Wilfried Weber, group leader at the Faculty of Biology and the BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies excellence cluster.

The interdisciplinary research group has published this now possible translation of the molecular signalling pathways for different materials in several scientific journals such as "Materials Today", "Data in Brief" and "Advanced Materials".

All components must be accurately balanced

Particularly important in the development of such intelligent material systems: The activities of all building blocks have to be precisely coordinated. Jens Timmer and Raphael Engesser from the Institute of Physics at the University of Freiburg have developed special quantitative mathematical models.

Diverse application potential

"The great thing about material systems inspired by Synthetic Biology is their diversity," says Hanna Wagner, PhD student and co-author of the articles. The studies present a modular design concept that offers an easily adaptable scheme for the development of biohybrid material systems. The systems can fulfil very different requirements; for example, they can recognise physical, chemical or biological signals, process them and then carry out the desired functions themselves. For example, they could be used to amplify signals, store information or release molecules in a controlled way. The new scheme, which allows smart materials to be developed and created, enables a wide range of applications for research, biotechnology and medicine.

Freiburg scientists have transferred the signal recognition and further processing of biological cells to materials. The scheme they have developed for so-called biohybrids enables a broad range of applications.