News Release

UC San Diego NanoEngineers to lead MRSEC research thrust on Living Materials

Nanoengineering professors Jonathan Pokorski (right( and Nicole Steinmetz lead the living materials thrust on the $18 million grant. 

San Diego, Calif., July 8, 2020 -- University of California San Diego researchers are using the tools of the biotechnology revolution—in particular, genetic engineering and synthetic biology—to build new classes of materials with novel kinds of abilities. Materials that can repair themselves are just one example of the applications of the "living materials" research thrust that is a key component of the new $18M Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The team's big idea is to incorporate living organisms, either from plants or microbes, into their new materials. Living organisms have evolved over billions of years to perform complex functions and to sense the environment around them. Synthetic materials still lag far behind what biological systems can accomplish. The UC San Diego researchers are asking: why not use biology to program materials?

Nanoengineering professors Jonathan Pokorski and Nicole Steinmetz from the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering co-lead this research team.

Pokorski's lab incorporates living cells into engineering polymers to improve their performance. Steinmetz's lab engineers components of plants and plant viruses to generate functional materials. To meet their ambitious goals, they assembled a team of scientists and engineers from UC San Diego with a wide range of expertise including polymer chemistry, biology, nanoengineering, genetic engineering, and materials characterization.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a good example of the limitations of many materials we encounter in our everyday lives.

"Why can’t the materials in our clothing and in our masks be more efficient at filtering out, or even killing a deadly virus?” asked Pokorski. “And wouldn’t it be great if that mask could automatically repair a small tear in its fabric before it lets a virus particle leak through?”

Materials that incorporate living, adaptive elements provide one possible solution. 

“Living systems have been making materials to suit their own purposes for eons,” said Pokorski. “Some of those are useful to us unintentionally—for example an oak tree makes strong wood that we can use to construct a table or a chair. What our MRSEC is trying to do is engineer organisms so they will make materials useful to us by design, not by accident.”

A major element of their effort is not just to make materials, but to engineer into them living properties that can respond to environmental cues.

“When a branch breaks on a live tree, it just grows a new one. However, a board made from a tree will not repair itself if you break it,” says Steinmetz. “A unique feature of our approach is that we are designing the materials to include live organisms directly into their structure—so they can respond to events just as other living systems can.”

The team assembled by Pokorski and Steinmetz is using plants, algae, and harmless soil bacteria as the live elements in their materials. They are engineering their living materials with capabilities to generate industrially important chemicals, polymers, and electronic materials, or to change their shape, their electronic properties or to repair themselves, in response to external stimuli.

The team is composed of UC San Diego researchers that span a unique spectrum from responsive biology through materials biology to polymeric materials.

Co-lead of living materials team
Jon Pokorski, nanoengineering professor, UC San Diego

Co-lead of living materials team
Nicole Steinmetz, nanoengineering professor, UC San Diego

Founding professors on the Living Materials team
Susan Golden, biological sciences professor, UC San Diego
Jim Golden, biological sciences professor, UC San Diego
Rachel Dutton, biological sciences professor, UC San Diego
Mike Burkart, chemistry and biochemistry professor, UC San Diego
Steve Mayfield, biological sciences professor, UC San Diego
Darren Lipomi, nanoengineering professor, UC San Diego
Jinhye Bae, nanoengineering professor, UC San Diego


Media Contacts

Daniel Kane
Jacobs School of Engineering

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering