‘Zombie’ cells are created in lab… and they outperform their living counterparts

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  • Scientists ’embalm’ the living cell in a silica acid solution
  • Fossilised cell can survive greater temperatures and pressures than flesh
  • Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories and University of New Mexico hope technique can used in commercial manufacturing

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 It may sound like something from a science fiction film, but scientists say they have created ‘zombie cells’ – that continue to work after they are dead.

But unlike the walking dead of Hollywood, these cells actually perform some functions better than when they were alive.

Scientists say by coating organic cells in silicic acid they are able to withstand far greater temperatures and pressures than flesh.

The zombie cells were created by biologists at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico.

The process of cell zombification is relatively simple: scientists coat a living cell with silicon to replicate its structure to near perfection.

As it turns out, the silicon-coated cells perform tasks more efficiently after the living cell has died. A horde of billions of hard-working cell zombies would have many applications in commercial and research fields from the tiny to the huge. The process also allows scientists to create copies of cells accurate down to the groves in the DNA.

The living cell essentially serves as a mold for the silicon. The silicon zombie cells can withstand a much wider temperature and pressure range than flesh and it seems that they can perform certain functions better than the living originals.

“Take some free-floating mammalian cells, put them in a Petri dish and add silicic acid,” Michael Hess, Digital Communications Specialist for Office of Public Affairs of the United States Department of Energy, writes of the process. “The silicic acid, for reasons still partially unclear, enters without clogging and in effect embalms every organelle in the cell from the micro- to the nanometer scale.”

For those looking for a science fiction approximation, these silicon cell copies might be less zombie and more of a clone/robot blend.

“By heating the silica to relatively low heat (400 C), the organic material of the cell — its protein — evaporates and leaves the silica in a kind of three-dimensional Madame Tussauds wax replica of a formerly living being,” Hess writes. “The difference is that instead of modeling the face, say, of a famous criminal, the hardened silica-based cells display internal mineralized structures with intricate features ranging from nano- to millimeter-length scales.”

“King Tut was mummified,” said Sandia materials scientist Bryan Kaehr, the lead researcher of the project, “to approximately resemble his living self, but the process took place without mineralization. Our zombie cells bridge chemistry and biology to create forms that not only near-perfectly resemble their past selves, but can do future work.”

Screenwriting inspiration aside, there are important reasons the researchers experimented with copying cells. The hardworking silicon zombies could help out in industries dealing with fuel cells and decontamination.