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One-Upping Nature's Materials

Striving for designer substances that build themselves from individual molecules

Before he gets down to the nitty-gritty business of discussing protein structure, Shuguang Zhang teaches a little history to his bioengineering class at MIT.

Civilization's earliest materials were biological, Zhang tells them. People used skin, fur, and bone for making clothing and shelter and for hunting down food. Later, they used stone. Then, bronze. Then, iron. Eventually, society reached what Zhang calls the plastic age, and in the past 30 years, the silicon age.

It's a fair enough history lesson. When Zhang turns to the present, he tells his students that they live on the leading edge of a new era that harks back to the days of prehistory. He calls this the age of "designed biological materials."

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