GLASS-LIKE CERAMICS, USED in everything from superstrong composites to bone implants, are still full of surprises. Edward J.A. Pope has coaxed from them an entirely new class of what he calls "living" materials that encapsulate live micro-organisms in ceramic.
To create his new silica-based materials, Pope uses sol-gel technology, in which ceramics are created through chemical reactions at room temperature. First, he disperses the tiny bugs in a solution containing the chemical precursors of the ceramics, then he adds a catalyst. During the reaction, a gel forms around the microbes, protecting them from the outside world but also allowing them to receive nutrients and function. Pope has housed a yeast fungus this way and kept it alive for more than a year.
The novel materials have many potential uses, says Pope--protecting valuable microorganisms in the lab, for starters, or as factories where microbes produce enzymes for use as drugs or to break down toxic substances. They might even become artificial organs, encasing transplanted tissue cells from a pancreas, liver, or thyroid. The ceramic coating would keep the foreign cells safe from antibodies or other hostile agents. Pope plans to continue working on the materials at MATECH Co., his Westlake Village (Calif.) company.