Scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi have announced that they have developed the first artificial cilia, the tiny, hair-like strands through which organisms derive smell, vision, hearing and fluid flow.
The material responds to thermal, chemical and electromagnetic stimulation, allowing researchers to control it and opening unlimited possibilities for future use.
Scientists have long imagined what could be done if they could engineer cilia for other organic and nonorganic uses. Marek Urban, a professor of polymer science and engineering, along with a team of researchers, developed a new thin copolymer film with whisker-like formations that mimics natural cilia.
“Our interest is in developing materials with multi-level responses at various length and time scales,” says Urban. “I believe this is the future of science and engineering that will drive future technologies.”
Employing a process used for years to produce latex paints, the researchers formed thin copolymer-based films whose chemical composition makes possible filaments that have built-in molecular sensors that respond to temperature, acidity and ultraviolet radiation. Moreover, the filaments are capable of locomotion, waving, shrinking and expanding in response to stimuli. They also are capable of fluorescence, that is, absorbing and emitting light and changing colors as a reaction to ultraviolet rays.
The ability to engineer this cilia-like biosensor may give scientists an ability to, for example, test for the presence of toxins, oxygen or even lack of oxygen in an environment. Future opportunities for sensor use might include developing new sensors for testing glucose levels, using the sensors for drug testing, or testing for air or water safety.
There is no limit to dreaming up applications for such a material, Urban says. “Many new ideas are being generated as we speak, but it is too early to reveal them.”