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Synthesis and patterning of tunable multiscale materials with engineered cells


Many natural biological systems—such as biofilms, shells and skeletal tissues—are able to assemble multifunctional and environmentally responsive multiscale assemblies of living and non-living components. Here, by using inducible genetic circuits and cellular communication circuits to regulate Escherichia coli curli amyloid production, we show that E. coli cells can organize self-assembling amyloid fibrils across multiple length scales, producing amyloid-based materials that are either externally controllable or undergo autonomous patterning. We also interfaced curli fibrils with inorganic materials, such as gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) and quantum dots (QDs), and used these capabilities to create an environmentally responsive biofilm-based electrical switch, produce gold nanowires and nanorods, co-localize AuNPs with CdTe/CdS QDs to modulate QD fluorescence lifetimes, and nucleate the formation of fluorescent ZnS QDs. This work lays a foundation for synthesizing, patterning, and controlling functional composite materials with engineered cells.

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Figure 1: Inducible production of engineered curli fibrils and biofilms.
Figure 2: Conversion of timing and amplitude of chemical inducer signals into material structure and composition.
Figure 3: Synthetic cellular communication for dynamic, autonomous material production and patterning.
Figure 4: Multiscale patterning with cellular consortia via synthetic gene regulation combined with inducer gradients and subunit engineering.
Figure 5: Environmentally switchable conductive biofilms and cell-based synthesis of curli-templated nanowires and nanorods.
Figure 6: Assembly and tuning of functional AuNP-QD heterostructures, and nucleation of fluorescent ZnS QDs on cell-synthesized curli fibrils.


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We thank J. J. Collins (Biomedical Engineering, Boston University) for donating riboregulator plasmids, R. Weiss (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT) for the gift of a LuxI plasmid, C. Dorel (Biosciences Department, INSA Lyon) for the gift of E. coli MG1655 ompR234, M. Chapman (Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, University of Michigan Ann Arbor) for the gift of anti-CsgA antibodies, K. Ribbeck (Department of Biological Engineering, MIT) for use of confocal microscopy facilities, and L. Cameron (Confocal and Light Microscopy Core, Dana Farber Cancer Institute) for assistance with FLIM. We thank C. Zhong, K. Lowenhaupt and P. Siuti from the Lu lab, S. Keating from the lab of N. Oxman (Media Lab, MIT), K. Frederick from the lab of S. Lindquist, S. Lindquist (Whitehead Institute), and E. Dreaden from the lab of P. Hammond (Chemical Engineering, MIT) for helpful discussions. We thank C. Zhong from the Lu lab for the gift of purified CsgA protein. We also thank M. Mimee and O. Purcell from the Lu lab for a close reading of this manuscript. This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research and the Army Research Office. This work was also supported in part by the MRSEC Program of the National Science Foundation under award number DMR-0819762. A.Y.C. acknowledges graduate research support from the Hertz Foundation, the Department of Defense, and NIH Medical Scientist Training Program grant T32GM007753. A.N.B. acknowledges support from NIH-NIEHS Training Grant in Toxicology 5 T32 ES7020-37. T.K.L. acknowledges support from the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the NIH New Innovator Award (1DP2OD008435).

Author information




T.K.L. and A.Y.C. conceived the experiments. A.Y.C., Z.D., A.N.B., U.O.S.S., M.Y.L. and R.J.C. performed the experiments, A.Y.C., Z.D., A.N.B. and T.K.L. analysed the data, discussed results, and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Timothy K. Lu.

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Competing interests

T.K.L. and A.Y.C. have filed a provisional application based on this work with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

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Chen, A., Deng, Z., Billings, A. et al. Synthesis and patterning of tunable multiscale materials with engineered cells. Nature Mater 13, 515–523 (2014).

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