Creating Novel Environments for Living Cells

Describing this as “an exciting time to be at Sandia,” and himself as an individual “attuned to serendipity,” the PI of this project, a President Harry S. Truman Fellow*, sees himself amid a burgeoning initiative at the interface of biology and nanotechnology. Bionano interdisciplinary research is, quite obviously, not only in-progress at Sandia, but it is also growing and attracting the attention and energies of creative young staff. These early career individuals are not only coming to seek growth and career-development opportunities, but they are also bringing with them unique opportunities for this facet of Sandia LDRD-funded research efforts.

This PI recognized the opportunity to integrate his research with that of a Sandia Fellow and UNM Distinguished Professor, and he followed through, firmly believing that his unique protein lithography system could be of both great interest and great potential value to the Sandia research ongoing in this arena. He was looking for a laboratory offering the freedom to pursue novelty, to investigate the leading-edge, in this instance, the leading edge of the leading edge, a multidisciplinary scientific field in its infancy. The Truman Fellowship and the associated LDRD-funded endeavors in his sponsor’s group clearly presented such an opportunity.

Building a better micro-box for cells in which to live would be a completely pedestrian way to describe this work, but both the approaches and the questions posed extend far beyond such a mundane description. This team is approaching this nanomanipulation of microenvironments from several different angles. One technique for laser-based manipulation of proteins within a hydrogel matrix — so-called multiphoton lithography — allows them to create a diversity of nano- and micro-environments that are manipulable by physical parameters such as pH (acidity) and temperature. But these environments are also biologically significant, because proteins are bionanomachines of various types (signalers, receivers, motors, and enzymes). Thus, incorporation of living cells into such a nanofabricated proteinaceous environment makes this a potentially interactive situation, in which the cells can interact with and remodel this light-fabricated structure.

Finding a Mentor-Collaborator

The team, meanwhile, pursues a parallel path in nano-constructing biologically compatible inorganic environments, in this case, a composite of silica and layered lipids (the “stuff” of biological membranes). The team has demonstrated that living cells will interact with and actively manipulate their surrounding architecture. The marriage of these two approaches may logically open up a myriad of novel possibilities. Fundamental questions abound regarding cell signaling, so-called quorum sensing in bacteria — which the group has recently elucidated in examining the basis for bacterial antibiotic resistance. Numerous signaling processes also await clarification in higher organisms, for example, the immune system representing a model system for study.

More futuristic are intentions to utilize cells as modelers of nanomaterials; for example, one could envision a bacterial cell, yeast cell, or even a white blood cell becoming the creator of circuitry on a silicon communications chip. Once the stuff of science fiction, this design potential is now not only conceivable, but both microenviromental systems provide rational routes to such eventual outcomes. The fact that the investigators are now working together rather than separately —one a distinguished Sandia staff member, the other an early-career scientist — is testament to the possibilities inherent in the LDRD program and the Truman fellowship. The Truman Fellow speaks of Sandia as a “ripe place for biology.” The Truman and the underpinning philosophy of the LDRD program is clearly a win-win for his early-career initiatives.

(image copyright 2008, National Academy of Sciences, USA; originally published in Kaehr, B. and J. Shear, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, page 8850-8854, 2008).

*The President Harry S. Truman Fellowship is a special category of postdoctoral Sandia LDRD fellowship established in honor of the late U.S. president.

SAND 2009-8419P: For more information, contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it at Sandia National Laboratory.