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Avinash Manjula-Basavanna

Harvard Medical School

Avinash Manjula-Basavanna grew up in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, a lush region teeming with wildlife: elephants, leopards, peacocks galore. “It was kind of an environment where you are close to nature,” Manjula-Basavanna said. 

Nature, from a materials perspective, was strange. To make most materials, whether plastics or metals or concrete, humans have to simulate superhuman conditions: heating things to thousands of degrees or exposing them to harsh chemicals. But nature has no such requirements: It can make wondrous things at ambient temperatures.

“It’s like child’s play, you’re just limited by your imagination.”

The idea captivated Manjula-Basavanna as a Ph.D. student. He started working on a field called bio-inspired materials, building, for example, materials that mimic spider silk or electric conductors based on the design features of amino acids in our cells. “It is not all toxic, and much more sustainable,” he said. 

Eventually, he started thinking more broadly: What if you could use nature itself — living cells — to make the materials? Instead of trying to make spider silk synthetically, you could engineer bacteria into factories that produce the real thing. Or better yet, why not build materials out of living cells themselves? The field, known as engineered living materials, was in its infancy. But its possibilities seemed limitless.

Manjula-Basavanna now spends much of his time perfecting a biodegradable plastic substitute created by engineered E. coli. He also imagines walls made of spores that heal when damaged or pills that release drugs only in specific settings. His group last year demonstrated a living ink that can be printed into any shape.

“Just like our body, which can regenerate, can you make a material which can regenerate? Can you make a material which can heal itself? Can you make a material which can respond to the environmental cues?” he says. “It’s like child’s play, you’re just limited by your imagination.”

— Jason Mast