The first man-made bacterial biofilms that can be manipulated by environmental factors and transfer the added man-made element to other bacteria that have not been adjusted by man was reported by Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues on March 23, 2014, at the MIT website.
The researcher selected E. coli to work with because this strain of bacteria naturally produces polymeric protein chains that help the bacteria adhere to surfaces. The researchers incorporated gold nanoparticles and quantum dots into the biofilm polymer by manipulating the chemical environment the bacteria were exposed to.
Once the nanoparticles and quantum dots became incorporated into the living tissue of the bacteria, the researchers were able to manipulate the composition of the biofilms created by the bacteria. The biofilms could even be induced to conduct electricity.
The researchers also observed the transfer of the altered biofilm including the nanoparticles to other bacteria.
Practical applications for the discovery include the production of higher rates of enzyme catalysis of the breakdown of agricultural waste to biofuels, improvement in solar cells, more efficient batteries, and the manufacture of scaffolding for bones and other body tissues.
This research is the simplest and most successful incorporation of a man-made substance into the life processes of a living organism to date.