Bacteria may be the key to future 3D-printed bespoke materials

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Want to know what the future of 3D printing might hold? How about the possibility of printing custom materials such as graphene by using 3D-printed bacteria?

That’s exactly what scientists at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands are doing. They’ve developed a new process — thought to be a world first — that enables them to 3D print a range of materials using bacteria.

“For many years, people have been using bacteria to make chemicals, whether that’s antibiotics, or a number of other things like that,” Dr. Anne Meyer, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “Using bacteria to make materials is something that’s new. We’re really starting from scratch to work out what the possibilities are.”

Meyer and her colleagues have so far used bacteria to 3D print materials resembling all-around wonder material graphene, scratch-resistant mother-of-pearl, and even a bacteria-based model of dental plaque — which they claim could be used to test future toothpastes.

“One of the big advantages of using bacteria is that it’s cheap, easy, and environmentally friendly,” Meyer continued. “You literally mix your bacteria with the precursor starting material and, when you come back the next day, it has already made your product. There’s none of the chemical waste that you have with some of the traditional chemical approaches.”

Impressively, the work is being carried out using a regular over-the-counter 3D printer, which Meyer said was an important part of the project. “We didn’t want to make something that would be prohibitively expensive, or require a high level of expertise,” she said. The idea is to develop an easily reproducible process that can then be replicated by other researchers around the world.

In a recent proof-of-concept demonstration, the team combined E. coli with a gel formed from algae. They then 3D-printed the resulting material onto a dish with calcium ions. The gel solidifies when in contact with the calcium, ensuring that the bacteria then stayed in place. As it turns out, it is already possible to print bacteria into very exact lines only 1 millimeter in width.

We guess you only need to be worried when people start talking about using bacteria to 3D print food. That’s the point at which we would get squeamish!