Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico have developed silica-based replicas of cells that look and even behave like living mammalian tissue, but they’re not actually living things. They’re dead, but they have many of the characteristics of something that’s living. Hence: “zombie cells.”
To create the zombies, researchers put silica into the structure of living cells, then heated them. The protein-based material in the cells burned away, but the silica retained the structure. All the living tissue is gone, but some of the functionality remains. And because they’re made of silica, the new cells are very durable.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Brinker of the University of New Mexico, the cells held a “robust, three-dimensionally stable form that resists shrinkage even upon heating to over 500 degrees Centigrade (932 degrees Fahrenheit). The researchers hope that the zombie technique could be used for all kinds of nanotechnological constructions in the future, from sensors to fuel cells.
“It’s very challenging for researchers to build structures at the nanometer scale,” said lead researcher Dr. Bryan Kaehr, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories. “We can make particles and wires, but 3-D arbitrary structures haven’t been achieved yet. With this technique, we don’t need to build those structures — nature does it for us.”