We discovered a process by which aqueous droplets submerged in a hydrocarbon solvent can be connected by means of lipid bilayers to form networks. The incorporation of protein pores into the bilayers allows the droplets to communicate with each other and the environment. In the area of synthetic biology, considerable effort has been put in the preparation of artificial cells. By contrast, assemblies of interacting protocells have not been reported. Droplet networks are an advance in this direction. By using engineered pores in the interface bilayers, we have been able to produce droplet networks that form batteries, detect light and rectify electrical signals.
Recently, we have built more extensive three-dimensional networks by 3D printing to form tissue-like materials that conduct signals along neuron-like pathways or fold to assume altered shapes. The technology is also being adapted to print living cells in three-dimensional patterns.
Villar, G., Graham, A.D. and Bayley, H. A tissue-like printed material. Science 340, 48-52 (2013). DOI: 10.1126/science.1229495
Bayley, H., Cronin, B., Heron, A., Holden, M., Hwang, W., Syeda, R., Thompson, J. and Wallace, M. Droplet interface bilayers, Mol. BioSystems 4, 1191-1208 (2008). DOI: 10.1039/b808893d