Biological materials science is a new field at the interface of materials science and biology. Historically, the fields of structural biology and physiology have tended to overlook materials-science approaches when investigating biological matter. However, including studies of the physical (mechanical, optical and/or magnetic) properties of materials, and how they respond to changing environmental factors, provides opportunities to improve understanding of biological processes such as tissue growth, self-repair, sensing and cell motility.
The emergence of biological materials science is due, in part, to the advent of regenerative medicine, as this discipline needs biomaterials that interact with the body in a specific, predictable manner. In parallel, the development of new technologies means that researchers now have the tools to study, in greater detail, the structure and physical properties of biological materials, whether cells, tissue samples or complete organs. This knowledge can be used to engineer new ‘smart’ materials that can, for example, self-assemble, self-repair and/or evolve, and to investigate how these biomaterials interact with biological systems. Drawing inspiration from natural processes, the search is on to find alternative, more efficient ways of synthesizing organic materials.
The creation of new material families based on biological systems — biomimetic materials synthesis — involves much more than simply copying structures observed in nature1. Researchers also need to appreciate the building principles used in their construction. This, in turn, requires a thorough understanding of the relationship between structure and function2.
One area where this approach has already been successful is biomimetic mineralization. Biominerals, such as mother- of-pearl, generally have superior properties to artificially created materials with similar composition. Materials scientists have discovered that biominerals are not formed via the classical crystallization process but instead start with organized nanoparticle building units coupled with amorphous or even liquid precursors. By drawing on elements of this alternative pathway, it is possible to make a range of complex synthetic crystalline structures3,4. Using this strategy to engineer mother of pearl in the laboratory resulted in a synthetic material that was practically indistinguishable from the genuine biomineral.