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'Zombie' Cells Created In New Mexico Lab Said To Outperform Living Ones In Some Ways

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Think the only zombies out there are the ones you see in science fiction movies?

Think again.

Researchers in New Mexico say they've created zombie cells -- near-perfect replicas of mammalian cells that can perform many of the same functions despite the fact that they're not actually alive. But instead of pursuing and eating people as sci-fi zombies often do, these experimental cells may someday do our bidding -- finding use in commercial applications ranging from sensors to catalysts to fuel cells.

Not quite sure you understand? Think of the cells as a possible next step in nanotechnology, in which scientists create machines not from big hunks of metal but from individual atoms and molecules.

"It's very challenging for researchers to build structures at the nanometer scale," lead researcher Dr. Bryan Kaehr, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, said in a written statement. "We can make particles and wires, but 3-D arbitrary structures haven't been achieved yet. With this technique, we don't need to build those structures -- nature does it for us."

The technique involves first depositing silica -- the stuff sand is made of -- onto the tiny structures inside living cells. Then the cells are heated to burn away the proteins they're made of, leaving behind the nonliving but structurally similar zombies.

And like the lumbering zombies dreamed up by Hollywood screenwriters, these cellular zombies are very hard to get rid of.

Dr. Jeffrey Brinker, a University of New Mexico professor and another member of the research team, said in the statement that the zombie cells exist in a "robust, three-dimensionally stable form that resists shrinkage even upon heating to over 500 degrees Centigrade [932 degrees Fahrenheit]. The refractoriness of these delicate structures is amazing."

Let's just hope these zombies don't swell up, sprout legs, and start following us around.

The research was published with the title "Cellular Complexity Captured in Durable Silica Biocomposites" in the Oct. 8, 2012 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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