Biologists Concoct “Zombie-Like” Cells

A recent (and quite relevant) article caught my attention, ironically, the same day I was catching up on the last few episodes of The Walking Dead. Scientists from Sandia National Laboratories have “revived” dead cells using a technique that may soon be known as the “zombie cell” technique.

In collaboration with the University of New Mexico (UNM), biologists engineered powerful undead cells using the zombie cell technique. First, living mammalian cells were suspended in a petri dish and given a solution of silicic acid. The silica coated the cells in a way that penetrated every organelle in the cell, down to the nano-scale with a permeable silica mold. The coated cells were then exposed to an extremely high temperature of over 400°C, which evaporated all the protein around and within the cell. The result was a near-perfect (silica) replica of the cell. Imagine the equivalent of a wax museum for cells left in pristine condition down to the smallest cell structure.

A zombie invasion would bite, but fortunately zombie cells could be the fuel of the future. | Photo courtesy of russavia via WikiMedia Commons.
A zombie invasion would bite, but fortunately zombie cells could be the fuel of the future. | Photo courtesy of russavia via Wikimedia Commons.

These replicas are not only near perfect models of the previous living cell. These special cells are able to withstand extreme conditions that living cells cannot, hence a “zombie” cell. A sort of silica armor is formed that can withstand temperatures above 700°F and high-pressure conditions.

In terms of immediate use, this will help preserve biological samples more effectively. In addition, this zombie-cell technique can also contribute significantly to nanotechnology since building structures on a nano-scale presents great challenges. In other words, the technique will allow complex nanostructures of a cell to be copied with the work being done by nature itself.

Bryan Kaehr, one of the scientists at Sandia National Laboratories described the experiment as “bridging chemistry and biology to create forms that not only near-perfectly resemble their past selves, but can do future work.”

In the long term, these durable, three-dimensional cells could be useful in fuel cells, decontamination, and sensor technologies by converting the biological material into a reusable fossil. The possibility that the zombie cells could be used to make “zombie” gasoline for transportation holds exciting implications. Alas, the idea of ending energy crises and replacing oil as our main fuel source remains a reality only in sci-fi novels.

These zombie cells are not some secret government operation. In fact they have nothing to do with creating zombies (so put away the Zombie Survival Guide for now). The cutting-edge super cells may fuel our future in ways that we cannot imagine, and could prove to be invaluable in revolutionizing industry and medicine.

About Camilo Pardo

Camilo Pardo (CAS ’13) hails from the land of crabcakes and Old Bay (Baltimore). Here at BU, he studies Environmental Policy and Public Health. When he is not in class, he’s playing his guitar, Paloma. If you want to discuss anything music or science, he is your go-to guy.

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