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Signaling, Movement Properties Found in Synthetic Gels

Anna Balazs (University of Pittsburgh)

Anna Balazs (University of Pittsburgh)

Chemical engineers at University of Pittsburgh developed a computational model to track the ability of certain synthetic gels to sense a chemical signal and reconfigure themselves in response. The team led by Pittsburgh professor Anna Balazs describes its findings this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (paid subscription required).

Balazs (pictured right) and colleagues studied gel-like materials that exhibit Belousov-Zhabotinsky properties — the ability to pulsate, or swell and relax without any on-off switching of external stimuli. In an earlier study, the researchers found these materials would not only pulsate spontaneously, but also show an attraction to other pieces of the same material by positioning themselves, as if attempting to signal each other.

The Pittsburgh team created a three-dimensional gel model to test the responses of these materials to chemical signaling and light. The model shows pieces of Belousov–Zhabotinsky gels, when positioned apart from each other, would emit signals and sense signals from other pieces. The model also showed the pieces would move in the direction of other pieces, in response to those signals, in a process known as autochemotaxis.

Balazs and colleagues show as well that the movement of the gels could be influenced by light. With the model, the researchers exposed the gel segments to varying patterns of light and dark, which enabled the team to direct the movement of the gels in a manner resembling a train moving a freight cargo.

Balazs notes the study indicates synthetic materials with Belousov-Zhabotinsky properties exhibit characteristics resembling biological organisms. “This study demonstrates the ability of a synthetic material to actually ‘talk to itself’ and follow out a given action or command, similar to such biological species as amoeba and termites,” says Balazs.

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