A material microengineered to mimic the microlense-covered skeleton of the brittlestar – a cousin of the starfish. Learn more...
Created by a process of hierarchical self-assembly -- the process that allows molecules to make cells, cells to make tissues, and tissues to give rise to whole organisms -- living materials can grow, move, learn, and self-organize. They are responsive, adaptive, programmable, and self-healing; they can be stronger than steel, and better "engineered" than a suspension bridge. Scientists have only just begun to tap into the potential they present.
Researchers at the Wyss Institute have already uncovered key design principles that Nature uses to build living things. Some study simple creatures, such as the lowly sea-sponge, which creates an optical fiber far stronger and more resilient than commercially produced fibers. Others have discovered how living cells control their shape and function by balancing tension and compression between molecular struts and strings within their 'cytoskeleton,' just like bones and muscles do in our body. This form of architecture known as a tensegrity, which optimizes strength and resilience for given amounts of building material, is seen in all forms of living materials from viruses to insects, and it is already being applied to meet challenges in application areas ranging from nanotechnology to robotics.
Engineered elastic strips with heart cells that can contract freely. Learn more...
Natural materials are also uniquely multifunctional in that they can serve simultaneously as mechanical frameworks, chemical factories, light-conducting conduits, electric field generators, energy harvesters, and information processing networks. This multifunctionality is something Wyss researchers are trying to recreate in their own materials. Some Institute engineers are designing translucent walls of buildings that allow fresh air to pass through windows in warm weather, provide insulation when it is cold, and harness energy from the wind passing through. Others are creating nanoparticles that can be programmed to self assemble into scaffolds that bind growth factors, promote cell adhesion, and induce tissue regeneration when injected into the body and targeted to injury sites.
Still, efforts to understand and apply engineering lessons from living systems to create artificial materials face enormous challenges. The functions of a beating heart, for instance, are dependent on precise chemical, electrical, and mechanical activities that must be coordinated in time and space at multiple levels of complexity, from individual molecules to whole organs. Understanding and emulating these activities in materials that serve human needs requires collaboration among scientists, engineers, and clinicians from diverse disciplines, which is precisely what the Wyss Institute provides.