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3D Printer Using Living Ink Made of Microbes Could Print Healing Structures in Space

“The thought of combining a printer (the bane of office workers) with the bacterium E. coli (the scourge of romaine lettuce) may seem an odd, if not unpleasant, collaboration,” writes the New York Times.

“But scientists have recently melded the virtues of the infuriating tool and of the toxic microbe to produce an ink that is alive, made entirely from microbes.”

The microbial ink flows like toothpaste under pressure and can be 3D-printed into various tiny shapes — a circle, a square and a cone — all of which hold their form and glisten like Jell-O. The researchers describe their recipe for their programmable, microbial ink in a study published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The material is still being developed, but the authors suggest that the ink could be a crucial renewable building material, able to grow and heal itself and ideal for constructing sustainable homes on Earth and in space… [T]he new substance contains no additional polymers; it is produced entirely from genetically engineered E. coli bacteria. The researchers induce bacterial cultures to grow the ink, which is also made of living bacteria cells. When the ink is harvested from the liquid culture, it becomes firm like gelatin and can be plugged into 3D-printers and printed into living structures, which do not grow further and remain in their printed forms…

Bacteria may seem an unconventional building block. But microbes are a crucial component of products such as perfumes and vitamins, and scientists have already engineered microbes to produce biodegradable plastics. A material like a microbial ink has more grandiose ambitions, according to Neel Joshi, a synthetic biologist at Northeastern University and an author on the new paper. Such inks are an expanding focus of the field of engineered living materials. Unlike structures cast from concrete or plastic, living systems would be autonomous, adaptive to environmental cues and able to regenerate — at least, that is the aspirational goal, Dr. Joshi said. “Imagine creating buildings that heal themselves,” said Sujit Datta, a chemical and biological engineer at Princeton University who was not involved with the research….

Dr. Manjula-Basavanna is shooting for the moon, Earth’s satellite, where there are no forests to harvest for wood and no easy way to send bulk building materials. There, he said, the ink might be used as a self-regenerating substance to help build habitats on other planets, as well as places on Earth. “There is a lot of work to be done to make it scalable and economic,” Dr. Datta conceded. But, he noted, just five years ago creating robust structures out of microbes was unimaginable; conceivably, self-healing buildings could be a reality in our lifetime.

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