Solar panels

One day we could have conductive materials that grow, evolve, and self-repair. Researchers at MIT have taken the first steps to creating them. A new study (paywall) describes “living materials” that combine bacterial cells with nonliving materials that can conduct electricity and emit different colors of light. The study is just a proof-of-concept, but researchers say that future applications could include cheaper, more efficient solar panels and biosensors.

“When you look around the natural world,” lead author Timothy Lu told Quartz, “you can see that biology has done a great job of designing unique materials. But in our day-to-day lives, we use materials that aren’t alive in any way.” These plastics, he says, require lots of energy to make and use. “The goal,” he says, “is to find a way to engineer living cells so you can make them into materials you might not find naturally.

His team used E. coli, which naturally produces biofilms—communities of bacteria like the plaque on your teeth—that grow to cover a surface. Bacteria in biofilms have unique ways of organizing and communicating with each other to survive, which is a quality the researchers found attractive for producing new materials. Lu and his team programmed the E. coli to grow particular proteins on their surface. Each type of protein fiber prefers to interact with a different nonliving molecule. . . .