In February 2017, a team at Delft University of Technology, in Holland, announced they’d adapted a CoLiDo DIY 3D-printer to print structures with a culture of E.coli bacteria. In order for E.coli to survive the procedure and form colonies, they substituted the normally hot and high-pressure extruder of the printer with a gentler and cooler pipette. A researcher announced that their 3D printing technique is simple, inexpensive, and capable of producing bacterial structures in many different three-dimensional shapes, all without the need for printing scaffolds.
Whilst live cells have been successfully 3D printed before (several teams are attempting to 3D-print viable human organs), it has usually involved more sophisticated printers with scaffolds to define the structures. The breakthrough is therefore in demonstrating just how simply and cheaply E.coli and other bacterial products might be manufactured through a 3D printing service, with equipment no more complicated or expensive than used in commercial bureaux.
The hope is that bacteria can be made to engage in microbial reactions that create many different types of smart and biodegradable materials – a sustainable manufacturing process free of any environmentally toxic waste. There are already teams looking at ways to use E.coli and similar bacteria in nanotech, in the production of better-LED screens, and in smart clothing fabrics.
Don’t go rushing down to your local 3D printing bureau for your sportswear just yet, but a team at MIT MediaLab has been using a bacterial ink, prepared with bacteria normally present in rice, as a means to manufacture reactive clothing. Using 3D printer technology, the bacteria are infused into a layer of the fabric in key areas. In response to heat and moisture, such as is generated in a workout at the gym, the bacteria unfurl and allow the fabric to breathe.
Mission to Mars
In Denmark, the CosmoCrops project is looking at using a cyanobacterium – B. subtitles – to produce sugars from sunlight and carbon dioxide. The sugars, in turn, can then be used as the base for a 3D printer ink that could build bioplastic products. One of the possible scenarios where this technology could be deployed is in long distance space flight, such as the much-anticipated trip to the red planet, Mars. Equipping spaceships with their own 3D printing service would avoid the need to carry many spare parts. The raw material would be endlessly renewable.
Scientists at The University of Texas at Austin have been researching antibiotic resistant superbugs by 3D printing them into a variety of differently structured colonies. Being able to contain live colonies of them in this way enables researchers to investigate how they work together in order to acquire new properties, such as antibiotic resistance, that they would not have as isolated individual bacteria. Professor Jason Shear, a professor of chemistry, says the technique has enabled a vast range of experiments around communication between different types of bacterial colonies, and the spread of resistance.