Nature & Environment

New 'Zombie' Cells Outperform the Living in the Lab

Catherine Griffin
First Posted: Feb 18, 2013 10:42 AM EST

For all fans that follow "The Walking Dead," it turns out the dead may indeed outperform the living. Scientists have created "zombie" mammalian cells that function better after they die.

Although creating "zombie" cells may seem like a dubious endeavor, it has quite a few practical applications. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico coated a cell with a silica solution (think plastic mold). This created a near-perfect replica of the structure that could simplify a wide variety of commercial fabrication processes. In fact, the process allowed the researchers to preserve cells down to the minor grooves of its DNA.

But a coated cell isn't necessarily a dead cell. The researchers used the cells as molds on which to deposit the silica. The silica itself formed a kind of permeable armor around the protein of the living cell. In order to leave themselves with only the synthetic cell, though, researchers heated the silica to 400 C which caused the organic material of the cell to evaporate. This left researchers with an exact replica of the now-dead cell--think zombies.

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These new cells could survive much greater pressures and temperatures than their living counterparts, and could even perform some functions better than when they were alive. By heating the silica to high temperatures, the researchers saw that the cell could be reverse molded. That means that the "zombie" heating method resulted in a high-quality carbon structure in the same way that burning wood in air leaves a residue of structureless soot. By getting rid of the underlying silica support, researchers decreased the cell's electrical resistance by approximately 20 times.

So what are these "zombie" cells good for? Since cells can essentially be turned into a reusable fossil, the materials could be extremely useful when it comes to fuel cells, decontamination and sensor technologies.

The lead researcher, Bryan Kaehr, was excited about the potential of these new cells. In an interview with he said, "King Tut was mummified to approximately resemble his living self, but the process took place without mineralization [a process of fossilization]. Our zombie cells bridge chemistry and biology to create forms that not only near-perfectly resemble their past selves, but can do future work."

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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