Nature’s 3D Printing: Using E. Coli Bacteria to Grow Objects

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Synthetic Biology 3D Printing

The field of synthetic biology offers us state-of-the-art results like biofuel, but researchers are looking to push the envelope and develop a technique that could be Nature’s version of 3D printing.

Designers at IDEO have teamed up with scientists at the Lim Lab at the University of California, San Francisco to envision a “provocation” (that’s designer-ese for thought experiment) in which they explore the possibilities of exploiting known properties of microorganisms to literally “grow” the products we use every day.

In layman’s terms, researchers are exploring ways to train bacteria to grow into shapes when exposed to light. Perhaps one training could result in a coffee cup while another results in a functional motor gear.

Synthetic Biology 3D Printing

In their first visual exploration of this possibility, they decided to expand on an already-demonstrated property of certain E. coli bacteria. These bugs were genetically engineered to be responsive to light, creating so-called “bacterial photographs.”

From there, Will Carey and Adam Reineck of IDEO teamed up with Reid Williams, a Ph.D. candidate at UCSF, to imagine a photo-sensitive microorganism that would have its light-sensitive switch linked to a different property–say, the production of a hard shell.

The result could be a tough and durable everyday object made out of cells encased in cellulose–the stuff in plants–or chitin, which is the major component of lobster shells.

It’s important to note that at this stage, this process is still entirely conceptual. But it is based on real science, and that’s the whole point: design provocations like these help people think outside the mental boxes we’ve all been put in by our limited knowledge of what’s happening at the frontiers of science.


Via Fast Company.

Biologist photo by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used under Creative Commons license.

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One Response to Nature’s 3D Printing: Using E. Coli Bacteria to Grow Objects

  1. Weis Jere says:

    Has this always been true?

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