3D printing—more formally referred to as additive manufacturing—has been gaining traction in a wide variety of fields within the past few decades. It has been especially beneficial in biomedical engineering circles, since it allows for fast, cheap production of prototypes. 3D printing has also been used in medicine to create personalized implants and prosthetics for individual patients.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, are taking 3D printing one step further. Their findings, recently published in Advanced Materials, indicate that the methods used for traditional 3D printing can also be used to print living materials; they were able to integrate programmable bacteria into their 3D printing ink.
Reflecting on his team’s work, lead researcher Xuanhe Zhao explained, “We believe the printing of bacteria and hydrogels into large-scale, high-resolution 3D structures will open a new avenue for designing new living materials and devices.”
One such device that the researchers have proposed is what they call a “living tattoo.” To create the tattoo, researchers printed several types of bacteria onto a thin, flexible sheet that could be attached to human skin. The tattoo was printed so that bacteria were arranged into different sections, each responding to a different chemical stimuli. If the appropriate chemical was detected by the bacteria, that area of the tattoo would fluoresce.
It is fairly easy to imagine some of the possible applications of a “living tattoo” like the one developed at MIT. Perhaps, for example, the tattoo could be used to detect the presence of harsh chemicals in hazardous working environments.
But Zhao and his team see even greater potential in printing living materials, especially in medicine. They imagine that in the future, living materials might be used for making implants. These implants could be used as a sort of monitoring system to detect chemical release in different signaling pathways, such as inflammation. Living materials, therefore, may have potential in the medical field as a diagnostic tool.
For now, though, the researchers are trying to find ways of developing their living materials into a drug administration system. If certain chemicals or compounds could be released by 3D printed bacteria, this technology may develop into a novel way of giving a drug over time in a controlled manner. Although the team is still quite far from using their living materials in a therapeutic way, they remain optimistic about its future. They envision that living materials will move beyond “living tattoos” and see a future where 3D printed bacteria will be adapted for use in many applications in all sorts of medical specialties.
Marissa Cooper is a recent graduate from the University of Rochester. She is passionate about the exchange of ideas between science, healthcare, and technology and how these ideas can be applied to the modern world. Aside from writing, Marissa likes to see concerts, go to hockey games, and try new restaurants around Boston.
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