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article imageResearchers find 'zombie cells' function better than live ones

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By Greta McClain     Feb 22, 2013 in Science
Albuquerque - Zombies may not be as scary was we thought, especially if they are microscopic and can be trained to do whatever task we like.
Although these zombies are on the microscopic level and not full sized undead humans, the potential benefits of a newly discovered technology may be huge.
Dr. Bryan Kaehr, a researcher at the Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico (UNM), together with his team of researchers, have developed a way to create almost perfect replicas of mammalian cells, cells that are derived from the tissue of a mammal. Although these cells are not actually alive, they are capable of performing most of the same functions as live cells.
The so called “zombie cells” are created after coating living cells with a silica solution and then heating the cell at temperatures greater than 400 C (753 F). This process evaporates the proteins within the cell, leaving a three-dimensional nonliving, but nearly structurally identical “zombie cell”. According to Kaehr, the zombie cells are in some ways better than their living counterparts because they are capable of surviving greater pressures and temperatures, and can perform some functions better than when they were alive, saying:
“Once we've used silica to stabilize the cellular structure, it can still carry out reactions and, more importantly, that reaction is stable enough to work at high temperatures.”
Jeff Brinker, a UNM professor and Sandia Fellow, agrees, saying:
"The process faithfully replicates features from the nanoscale to macroscale in a robust, three-dimensionally stable form that resists shrinkage even upon heating to over 500 degrees Centigrade [932 degrees Fahrenheit]. The refractoriness of these delicate structures is amazing.”
Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale, first began to develop in the 1980's. Although the technology has grown over the past two decades, the process is still very labor intensive. Kaehr explains that the process of preserving organic material once required freezing it, which was energy-intensive. However, Kaehr hopes this new discovery will make the process easier, saying the new allows researchers to take "soft, potentially valuable biological material and convert it to a fossil that will stay on shelves indefinitely."
He went on to tell the Huffington Post:
"It's very challenging for researchers to build structures at the nanometer scale. We can make particles and wires, but 3-D arbitrary structures haven't been achieved yet. With this technique, we don't need to build those structures -- nature does it for us."
Instead of having to build a structure from scratch, Kaehr says scientists only need to find a cell that contains the "machinery" required and through the use of chemical or surface patterning, they can copy a group of cells into whatever shape needed.
So, what are the benefits of this discovery? University of New Mexico post-doctoral student Jason Townson says the most immediate use of the new technology may be in the preservation of organic materials used in imaging, saying:
“Formerly, for internal preservation and subsequent imaging, a cell would be fixed in formaldehyde or some other preservative. But many of these methods are labor-intensive. This method is simple. The preserved cells will never get sloppy in decay. And when we cracked open the resulting structure, we were blown away by how well the cell was preserved, down to the minor groove of the cell’s DNA.”
The technological applications of zombie cells may be more vast however, mainly because unlike inorganic biotemplating methods, the cells are not inferior hollow shell structures. Along with specimen preservation, the technology may eventually be used in fuel cell, decontamination, and sensor technologies, along with the development of biocomposites with programmed structures and functions according to the Association of University Technology Managers.
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