In polymer research, science imitates life

When searching for new ways to use polymers, scientists have to use more than their ample skills in research and chemistry. It also requires a heavy dose of creativity, insight and inspiration from whatever sources are available. Well, what is more inspirational than life itself? Life on earth contains scientific secrets beyond comprehension, and researchers have only scratched the surface of natural processes that exist everywhere.

But if scientists don't understand all of the inner workings of life forms, that doesn't mean they can't imitate them. Throughout history, nature has inspired human endeavors, from fire to agriculture to solar energy. Now, research teams are examining how smaller, more detailed functions of life, like cell growth and DNA information storage, can impact polymer development. By studying these processes, polymer research may soon take another step forward.

"What is more inspirational than life itself?"

DNA chains inspire polymer coding
For the first time ever, researchers have recorded a binary code onto a synthetic polymer, according to Nature Communications. So where does DNA come in? Life's building blocks have the ability to hold a massive amount of genetic information in a miniscule space. Recently, scientists have learned how to decipher and arrange DNA strands to create a binary code, but that comes with its limitations – it can be expensive and rigid.

However, synthetic polymers with the ability to store binary information are cheaper to produce and easier to manipulate. It is still a relatively arduous process to assemble short binary messages. It takes about a day to arrange these polymers one monomer at a time. But with automation, the process could be sped up. Decoding a message by way of a mass spectrometer takes only five minutes and even that time period is also likely to shorten.

Codes can be erased with exposure to lasers or high temperatures, but these polymers should last months or even years at room temperature. In five years' time, researchers hope to be able to store megabytes of information with this technique. The applications are numerous – polymer encoding could be used for molecular labeling in the short term for products like medicine or jewelry, making it nearly impossible to counterfeit.

DNA may hold the secret to storing massive amounts of information.DNA may hold the secret to storing massive amounts of information.

Polymer networks boost tissue growth
In cases of severe tissue damage, like second- or third-degree burns, cells may be unable to regenerate on their own. Doctors would need to create artificial conditions under which tissue cells could proliferate and heal the wound. Once again, polymers may hold the key.

A team at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research in Singapore developed star-shaped, 3-D polymers that are compatible with human cells and can provide the necessary support for severely damaged organs and tissue to recover, according to NPG Asia Materials.

The secret lies in the polymers' ability to aid cell growth without preventing the exchange of important nutrients and metabolites. The polymers have the addition of inorganic compound polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane to thank for its favorable properties. By incorporating POSS?, the polymers gained porosity along with better stability and more compatibility with cells.

Now, the A*STAR team hopes to use this technology to develop scaffolding for patients who need assistance in re-growing tissue. This polymer is an ideal solution, because it degrades over time. That means after the patient has sufficiently developed cell growth, the polymer will disappear.

"The degradation accelerated only after [the] POSS moieties had broken down," researcher Ming-Yong Han told the journal. "We are planning to use it for three-dimensional tissue reconstruction and modeling."

In both of these cases, synthetic polymers took on lifelike properties to provide a valuable product. Future researchers may use natural processes to inspire them further and develop even better devices. Scientists often pride themselves on creating new, innovative solutions, but they should also use nature's own techniques to guide them.