3D printing has already been put to use in many interesting applications, from large-scale homebuilding to robot hands that are good at Super Mario Bros.—and even creepy materials that can shape-shift into a human face. But researchers Anna M. Duraj-Thatte and Avinash Manjula-Basavanna have something more lively in mind. A new type of 3D printer ink with self-assembling properties may play a role in the future of renewable building materials and even ink that grows itself.
Researchers from Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, among others, reported their findings in a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications. As reported by Phys.org on Saturday, the paper details ink made of Escherichia coli (E. coli) cells bioengineered to make nanofibers.
Despite 3D printing’s advances, creating arbitrary shapes and patterns is still challenging, the paper explains. So the researchers set out to create what they call “microbial ink” made “entirely from genetically engineered microbial cells, programmed to perform a bottom-up, hierarchical self-assembly of protein monomers into nanofibers, and further into nanofiber networks that comprise extrudable hydrogels.”
According to the researchers, the ink can “sequester toxic moieties, release biologics, and regulate its own cell growth” by the chemical induction of genetic circuits.
After the researchers genetically engineered the E. coli to create living nanofibers, they mixed the result with additional ingredients to make the ink usable in a custom 3D printer.
After adding yet more matter, including microbes, fiber, and more living materials, the scientists were able to 3D-print living materials, including one that releases an anticancer drug when chemically induced.
The researchers also used the 3D printer ink to remove nearby BPA and regulate the ink’s own growth, suggesting the ink could potentially make more ink (imagine never running out of ink again).
Researchers said there could be further biomedical and biotechnological uses for its living ink. The paper suggests the ink could be used to create buildings in space or other “extraterrestrial habitats,” pointing to research around using living cells in structural building materials and self-generating materials for making buildings on Earth, the Moon, and Mars.
It would be a long time before we see this space ink take off, as this is just a research paper with no discussion of mass production.
Listing image by A. Duraj-Thatte, A. Manjula-Basvanna et. al./Nature