Advances in adaptive, intelligent life-inspired materials

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The drive to create materials that emulate the extraordinary properties of living systems has long been a source of inspiration and frustration for scientists and engineers. From the earliest attempts to understand the mysteries of silk's strength and elasticity to the more recent efforts to mimic the self-healing abilities of skin, the challenge of developing truly life-like synthetic materials has proven to be a formidable one.
Despite significant advancements in our understanding of the complex interplay between structure, function, and dynamics in biological systems, the ability to translate this knowledge into functional man-made materials has remained largely elusive.
At the heart of this challenge lies a fundamental dichotomy between the nature of traditional synthetic materials and the essence of living matter. Conventional materials, optimized for simplicity, durability, and cost-effective production, are inherently static and lack the adaptability and responsiveness that characterize biological systems.
While stimulus-responsive materials and shape-memory polymers have shown promise in mimicking certain aspects of living organisms, they often fall short in replicating the intricate feedback loops, self-organization, and evolutionary capacity that are the hallmarks of life.
Recent breakthroughs in fields such as synthetic biology, soft robotics, and non-equilibrium thermodynamics, however, have breathed new life into the quest for life-inspired materials. Advances in genetic engineering and biomanufacturing have opened up new avenues for the production of novel biomaterials with tailored properties, while the development of dissipative systems and feedback-controlled mechanisms has paved the way for materials that can maintain homeostasis and adapt to their environment.
These convergent technologies have set the stage for a new era of materials research, one that seeks to bridge the gap between the inanimate and the animate.
A seminal perspective published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials ("Materials Inspired by Living Functions") by a team of Finnish researchers from Aalto University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland presents a comprehensive roadmap for the development of life-inspired materials. The authors propose a two-pronged approach that encompasses both the engineering of biological organisms to produce novel materials and the creation of synthetic materials with rudimentary life-like functions.
General concepts in approaching life-inspired materials from synthetic and biological perspectives
General concepts in approaching life-inspired materials from synthetic and biological perspectives. Key life-inspired functions that can (or could) be implemented in future materials. (Image: doi:10.1002/adfm.202402097, CC BY) (click on image to enlarge)
The researchers highlight the potential of multiresponsive materials coupled with memory elements to mimic simple forms of learning, such as classical conditioning, sensitization, and habituation. By incorporating feedback loops and non-equilibrium processes, these materials can exhibit adaptive behavior and evolve into new states in response to environmental cues.
The authors also explore the concept of embodied intelligence, where materials can autonomously sense, process, and respond to information without the need for external control or programming.
One promising avenue for achieving life-like functionality in synthetic materials is through the use of dissipative systems driven by external fields or chemical fuels. By harnessing non-equilibrium thermodynamics, researchers can create materials with emergent properties and complex self-organization, akin to the structures found in living organisms.
Examples include the formation of convective cells in fluids subjected to temperature gradients or the generation of nanoparticle gradients using electric fields, which can lead to adaptive optical or magnetic properties.
Another key aspect of the proposed framework is the interface between living and non-living systems. The authors envision the development of hybrid materials that incorporate living cells or dormant states, enabling functions such as self-repair, adaptation, and controlled morphogenesis. By engineering microorganisms to produce and deposit material components in a spatially and temporally controlled manner, researchers can create materials with unprecedented levels of complexity and functionality.
This biomanufacturing approach, inspired by natural processes like the formation of nacre or the production of silk, holds immense potential for sustainable and efficient materials production.
Living–non-living interactions
Living–non-living interactions. The use of living cells to produce materials involves the production and placement of components in time and space. The control of cells and their communities opens new routes for material fabrication. a) Mechanoregulation, chemical signals, magnetic fields, or light can be used to control component production. b) The use of structural elements requires an understanding of molecular assembly and the emergence of material properties from their interplay. c) The incorporation of living cells or dormant states into materials allows for adaptive functions such as localized strengthening or repair. (Image: doi:10.1002/adfm.202402097, CC BY) (click on image to enlarge)
The implications of life-inspired materials are far-reaching, with applications spanning soft robotics, drug delivery, and smart sensors. Adaptive materials that can dynamically interact with their environment and make autonomous decisions could revolutionize fields such as medical implants, where devices could learn and adapt to individual patient needs.
Self-healing materials with embedded dormant cells could greatly extend the lifespan of infrastructure and reduce the environmental impact of construction.
Moreover, the development of biomanufacturing techniques could pave the way for sustainable and biodegradable alternatives to traditional synthetic materials.
As the field of life-inspired materials continues to evolve, it is clear that a multidisciplinary approach will be essential for success. Collaboration between materials scientists, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists will be crucial in unlocking the secrets of living systems and translating them into functional synthetic materials. The road ahead is undoubtedly challenging, but the potential rewards are immense.
By bridging the gap between the living and the non-living, researchers are not only expanding the frontiers of materials science but also deepening our understanding of the very nature of life itself.
The development of life-inspired materials represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about the design and manufacture of functional systems. By drawing inspiration from the adaptability, self-organization, and embodied intelligence found in living organisms, researchers are opening up new possibilities for materials that can sense, respond, and evolve in ways that were once thought impossible.
As these innovative approaches continue to mature, we can expect to see a new generation of materials that blur the boundaries between the natural and the artificial, heralding a future where the line between living and non-living matter becomes increasingly difficult to discern.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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