Living systems build structures in fundamentally different ways than do materials engineers. Using the central paradigm and other biosynthetic pathways, they are able to create materials through self-assembly, from building blocks that are produced on-demand, with a high degree of molecular customization. Indeed, humans have relied on plant- and animal-sourced materials since the dawn of civilization. Relatively recent advances in organismal engineering have opened up new frontiers related to harnessing biosynthesis for the production of new materials with tailored functions that would be difficult to create using conventional synthetic techniques.
Neel’s team engineers microbes so that they can not only synthesize new proteins and other molecular building blocks, but also orchestrate the assembly of those building blocks into higher order structures and functional materials. Specifically, Neel’s lab has pioneered a technique to repurpose the matrix proteins of bacterial biofilms as programmable materials scaffolds that can be produced easily and cheaply. One focus in the lab is to use this platform to create living materials in situ within the gastrointestinal tract using genetically engineered non-pathogenic bacteria, and use the engineered material to me diate interactions with the host. Another focus in the lab is exploring the use of engineered bacterial biofilms as materials for the selective removal or purification of various soluble components, as might be relevant for water decontamination. The lab is also interested in new opportunities as the interface of materials science, synthetic biology, and synthetic chemistry.