Our motivation for developing engineered living materials is the potential to integrate life into the design of matter. By doing so, we can sustainably produce materials that grow autonomously, self-regulate, spontaneously degrade after usage, adapt to their surroundings, and continuously produce useful catalytic or therapeutic functionalities. In contrast to existing synthetic materials, natural biological materials are characterized by autonomous and energy-efficient self-assembly. For example, plants, even a 300-foot-tall giant sequoia tree, are able to grow from a small seed because cellular division is coupled with material growth through self-assembly processes. The next grand challenge in this field is to develop design principles and capabilities to build high-performance living materials for practical applications beyond laboratory research.
My research lab at the University of California Irvine creates new types of living materials through molecularly programmed self-assembly of synthetic polymers with engineered cells and spores. By incorporating engineered synthetic polymers to drive the self-assembly process of living materials, the resulting living materials can be equipped with properties of high-performance polymeric materials, such as mechanical toughness, elasticity, shape memory, self-healing, and recyclability. Our strategy significantly departs from the status quo, focusing on molecular principles to build well-defined assemblies of synthetic polymers and engineered cells/spores. In this presentation, I will discuss how this approach uniquely enables (1) the seamless integration of living functionalities such as biocatalysis in high-performance materials, (2) dynamic and controlled behaviors in resulting materials, and (3) on-demand biocontainment and growth arrest.