Fashion, Space, and Medicine Stitched by Algae

The materials that make up our environment such as steel, plastic, glass, and concrete help us in everyday life, but have a damaging effect on our environment. A greener solution that can help save our environment and change the world is 3D printing, which has been used in medicine and healthcare, in the classroom, for the aerospace industry, fashion industry, and more. Another solution? Living materials. The idea of harnessing the power of living materials is gaining traction. Living materials are engineered materials composed of living cells that form or assemble the material itself or modulate the functional performance of the material in some manner. The possibilities seem endless with these two technologies, and now researchers are taking applications for energy, medicine, fashion, and space exploration to the next level by marrying the two technologies. Researchers at the University of Rochester and Delft University of Technology report they have used 3D printing to create a novel, environmentally-friendly material made of algae.

Their study was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials in a paper titled, “Bioprinting of Regenerative Photosynthetic Living Materials.”

“Living materials, which are fabricated by encapsulating living biological cells within a nonliving matrix, have gained increasing attention in recent years,” wrote the researchers. “Their fabrication in spatially defined patterns that are mechanically robust is essential for their optimal functional performance but is difficult to achieve. Here, a bioprinting technique employing environmentally friendly chemistry to encapsulate microalgae within an alginate hydrogel matrix is reported.”

“Three-dimensional printing is a powerful technology for fabrication of living functional materials that have a huge potential in a wide range of environmental and human-based applications,” explained Srikkanth Balasubramanian, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at Delft and the first author of the paper. “We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications.”

The researchers first started with a nonliving bacterial cellulose. “A bacterial cellulose substrate confers exceptional advantages to this living material, including strength, toughness, flexibility, robustness, and retention of physical integrity against extreme physical distortions. The bioprinted materials possess sufficient mechanical strength to be self‐standing, and can be detached and reattached onto different surfaces. Bioprinted materials can survive stably for a period of at least three days without nutrients, and their life can be further extended by transferring them to a fresh source of nutrients within this timeframe.”

The characteristics of the material make it an ideal candidate for a variety of applications.

“For artificial leaves, our materials are like taking the ‘best parts’ of plants—the leaves—which can create sustainable energy, without needing to use resources to produce parts of plants—the stems and the roots—that need resources but don’t produce energy,” said Anne S. Meyer, PhD, an associate professor of biology at Rochester. “We are making a material that is only focused on the sustainable production of energy.”

Another application of the material would be photosynthetic skins, which could be used for skin grafts, Meyer added. “The oxygen generated would help to kick-start healing of the damaged area, or it might be able to carry out light-activated wound healing.”

The materials can also be used for fashion which can help the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry. The bio-garments made from algae would be sustainable and biodegradable. They would also purify the air by removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and would not need to be washed, which would reduce water usage.

“Our living materials are promising because they can survive for several days with no water or nutrients access, and the material itself can be used as a seed to grow new living materials,” said Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, PhD, an associate professor of bionanoscience at Delft. “This opens the door to applications in remote areas, even in space, where the material can be seeded on site.”

GEN Live’s recent episode, “Synthetic Biology and the Future of Food, Fashion, and Pharma,” brought together experts in the field of synthetic biology to discuss the myriad ways that the field could impact our health, lifestyles, and the environment. This new study adds to the list of applications that will pave the way for a future that not only advances and improves our everyday life and technologies, but also have positive effects on our environment and planet.

“These bioprints are regenerative, that is, they can be reused and expanded to print additional living materials. The fabrication of the bioprinted living materials can be readily up‐scaled (up to ≥70 cm × 20 cm), highlighting their potential product applications including artificial leaves, photosynthetic bio‐garments, and adhesive labels,” concluded the researchers.

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