Bacteria’s at the core of this 3D-printed living ink that could become your skin

The range of objects emerging from 3D printers these days is already quite expansive, but generally, they share one thing in common — the “ink” used in these printing processes is dead. More accurately, it was never alive. But there’s a new 3D printing application that bucks this trend. It’s a new living ink of sorts, and it depends upon bacteria.

As per research published in the journal Science, a team at ETH Zurich led by Professor André Studart has found developed a “3D printing platform that works using living matter.” The bacteria-laden ink allowed researchers to produce “mini biochemical factories with certain properties, depending on which species of bacteria the scientists put in the ink,” and that could mean 3D printing personalized skin in the future.

Called “Flink,” which is an acronym for “functional living ink,” this new ink is comprised of a hydrogel mixed with bacteria and nutrients needed to feed said bacteria. The challenge in creating the ink was finding the right texture — too stiff and the bacteria can’t move around, lessening their effectiveness at secreting certain useful compounds. On the other hand, if it’s too thin, the printed products wouldn’t be able to maintain their shapes. Ultimately, the team noted, “The ink must be as viscous as toothpaste and have the consistency of Nivea hand cream.”

The bacteria used in the experiment were Pseudomonas putida, which breaks down toxic chemicals, and Acetobacter xylinumin, which secretes nanocellulose, which can relieve pain and retain moisture. That means it could be a useful tool in treating burns. Depending on the kinds of bacteria used in the ink, ETH researchers found that they could print objects that boasted different properties.

For example, we could one day print a “bacteria-containing 3D-printed sensor that could detect toxins in drinking water,” or a bacteria-containing filter that could help clean up oil spills. That said, it’ll still take some time to address the challenges associated with 3D printing as a whole. This includes how long it takes for printing to take place, and consequently, how difficult these solutions are to scale.

“Printing using bacteria-containing hydrogels has enormous potential, as there is such a wide range of useful bacteria out there,” the ETH team noted in a release. “Most people only associate bacteria with diseases, but we actually couldn’t survive without bacteria.” Look out world — you could soon be printing with bacteria all the livelong day.