The integration of biological components into a synthetic device environment is a major frontier in the design of microscale and nanoscale devices. Living cells possess many capabilities that are desirable in a device context, as multi-enzyme metabolic conversions are useful for environmental bioremediation, energy harvesting, and industrial fermentation. They can also amplify and transduce signals in response to detection of soluble analytes, and thereby could function in biosensing devices. To achieve this, molecular control of the interface between the biological molecule or cell and the surrounding material is paramount.
The majority of intercellular communication events occur between molecules embedded in the plasma membrane. These molecules comprise a diverse collection of receptors and ligands that serve to anchor the cell to appropriate growth locations, receive communication from adjacent cells and soluble signaling molecules, and send information regarding the polypeptide synthesis occurring within. Through a variety of complex mechanisms, these molecules serve to relay environmental information to the cell interior, ultimately resulting in gene regulation and thus control of cellular behavior. In order to establish connections between this communication system and inanimate substrates, an intervening surface that can mimic these phenomena in a controlled and dynamic fashion is likely to be required. A major emphasis in the PBD Chemical Biology Department is the development of a common molecular platform that can be used to interface living cells with synthetic materials in an interactive manner and to study the response of cells to their support material. These research will provide essential information for the successful incorporation of cells into device structures.