Biologists Create ‘Zombie Cells’ Which Outperform Living Counterparts

Biological researchers have created dead ‘zombie’ cells in the lab which outperform living cells.

The first stage of the ‘zombie cell’ only moderately heated, the cell is now pure silica and needed a gold coating for a scanning electron microscope to image it. Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

Researchers have created “zombie” cells which outperform living cells in lab environments.

Seriously! Remember that this is real life, not the opening to a video game.

A team at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico have innovated a technique whereby mammalian cells are coated with silica to form a near-perfect replicas.

The living cell essentially serves as a mold for the silicon.

As it turns out, the silicon-coated cells perform tasks more efficiently after the living cell has died.

From the living cell, this process creates hardened silica structures that look the same as the previously living cell, but can survive greater pressures and temperatures than flesh ever could.

A horde of billions of hard-working cell zombies would have many applications in commercial and research fields from the tiny to the huge. The process also allows scientists to create copies of cells accurate down to the groves in the DNA.

“Take some free-floating mammalian cells, put them in a Petri dish and add silicic acid,” Michael Hess, Digital Communications Specialist for Office of Public Affairs of the United States Department of Energy, writes of the process.

“The silicic acid, for reasons still partially unclear, enters without clogging and in effect embalms every organelle in the cell from the micro- to the nanometer scale.”

Michael Hess said that heating the silica to around 400C evaporates the protein in the cell, but leaves the silica as a three-dimensional replica of the “formerly living being”.

The difference is that instead of modeling the face, say, of a famous criminal, the hardened silica-based cells display internal mineralized structures with intricate features ranging from nano- to millimeter-length scales.

By heating the silica to high temperatures, experiments show the cell can be reverse molded.

This means taking a soft, potentially valuable biological material and converting it to a fossil that researchers can shelve indefinitely.

Right now, it’s very challenging for researchers to build structures at the nanometer scale. But, think for a minute if we don’t need to build these components.

Instead, researchers could find cells that possess the right machinery, and then use them as a mold to copy the part. In the future, using chemistry or surface patterning, they may even be able to tell cells to form whatever shape they need, as Energy reports.

Screenwriting inspiration aside, there are important reasons the researchers experimented with copying cells.

The valuable biological material can thus be converted into a reusable fossil, which could have uses in fuel cells, decontamination and sensor technology, as well as commercial manufacturing, writes the Huff Post.

Summing up, lead researcher Bryan Kaehr, a Sandia materials scientist, offers what may be the first distinction in scientific literature between a mummy cell and a zombie cell.

“King Tut was mummified,” he said, “to approximately resemble his living self, but the process took place without mineralization [a process of fossilization].

Our zombie cells bridge chemistry and biology to create forms that not only near-perfectly resemble their past selves, but can do future work.”

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