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October 28, 2009
Now here's a completely weird idea: a group in Korea has encapsulated individual living yeast cells in silica. They start out by coating the cells with some charged polymers that are known to serve as a good substrate for silication, and then expose the yeast to silicic acid solution. They end up with hard-shell yeast, sort of halfway to being a bizarre sort of diatom.
The encapsulated cells behave rather differently, as no doubt would we all under such conditions. After thirty days in the cold with no nutrients, the silica-coated yeast is at least three times more viable than wild-type cells (as determined by fluorescent staining). On the other hand, when exposed to a warm nutrient broth, the silica-coated yeast does not divide, as opposed to wild-type yeast, which of course takes off like a rocket under such conditions. They're still alive, but just sitting around - which makes you wonder what signals, exactly, are interrupting mitosis.
The authors tried the same trick on E. coli bacteria, but found that the initial polymer coating step killed them off. That's disappointing, but not surprising, given that disruption of the bacterial membrane with charged species is the mode of action of several broad-spectrum antibiotics.
"Hmmm. . .so what?" might be one reaction to this work. But stop and think about it for a minute. This provides a new means to an biological/inorganic interface, a way to stich cell biology and chemical nanotechnology together. If you can layer yeast cells with silica and they survive (and are, in fact, fairly robust), you can imagine gaining more control over the process and extending it to other substances. A layer that could at least partially conduct electricity would be very interesting, as would layers with various-sized pores built into them. The surfaces could be further functionalized with all sorts of other molecules as well for more elaborate experiments. No, this could keep a lot of people busy for a long time, and I suspect it will.
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