Synthetic Biology, Research That Combines Science and Engineering

While the creation of the synthetic cell, at the J. Craig Venter Institute, hints at a future in which synthetic biologists can redesign living cells to perform whatever tasks they dream up.  

Most research has focused on coaxing microbes to perform tasks that are similar to what they already do, such as transforming sugar into fuels using processes and materials that resemble the ones they use in nature.

Synthetic biology strives to make molecular biology more like engineering—with predictable materials and parts that can be put together in predictable ways. As the synthetic cell demonstrates, scientists now have the tools to edit an existing genetic sequence on a computer, use DNA-synthesizing machines to create it in fragments, and stitch these together in the lab. 

Electronic Devices Packaged in Synthetic Skin

by William Pentland


Self-adhesive electronics devices thinner than the diameter of a human hair can monitor the human heart, brain waves and muscle activity.  Unlike existing technologies, these new devices developed by researchers at the University of Illinois weigh nearly nothing, require no external wires and operate on tiny amounts of power.

The new technology, called an Epidermal Electronic System (EES), is based on a new class of micro-electronics that integrates miniature sensors, light-emitting diodes, tiny transmitters and refined wire-filament receivers.

The whole technical kit-and-caboodle can be found in a paper by Dae-Hyeong Kim of the University of Illinois and colleagues in the most recent issue of Science.

“Our goal was to develop an electronic technology that could integrate with the skin in a way that is mechanically and physiologically invisible to the user,” said co-author John Rogers, a professor in materials science and engineering department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We found a solution that involves devices we designed to achieve physical properties that match to the epidermis itself. It’s a technology that blurs the distinction between electronics and biology.”

The power needed to operate the device is sufficiently small that it can get all the juice it needs from stray (or transmitted) electromagnetic radiation or miniature solar collectors. The flat devices are integrated with a polyester backing familiar from stick-on tattoos.

The devices are so thin that close-contact forces called van der Waals interactions dominate the adhesion at the molecular level, so the electronic tattoos adhere to the skin without any glues and stay in place for hours. The device can last for up to 24 hours under ideal conditions.

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