It’s Printable, It’s Programmable, It’s E. Coli

Well, whaddya know? It seems that E. coli, the bane of Romaine and spinach everywhere, has at least one practical use. Researchers at Harvard have created a kind of 3D-printable ink that is alive and made entirely of microbes produced by E. coli. Although this is not the first so-called living ink, it does hold the title of the first living ink that doesn’t need any additional polymers to provide structure.

Passing the pillar test up to 16mm. Image via Nature

Because the ink is alive, it is technically programmable in the sense that it can self-assemble proteins into nanofibers, and further assemble those into nanofiber networks that comprise hydrogels.

One of the researchers compared the ink to a seed, which has everything it needs to eventually grow into a glorious tree. In this way, the ink could be used as a renewable building material both on Earth and in space. Though the ink does not continue to grow after being printed, the resulting structure would be a living system that could theoretically heal itself.

The ink creation process begins when the researchers induce genetically-engineered bacteria cultures to grow the ink, which is also made of living cells. The ink is then harvested and becomes gelatin-like, holding its shape well enough to go through a 3D printer. It even passes the bridging test, supporting its own weight between pillars placed up to 16 mm apart. (We’d like to see a Benchie.)

Continue reading “It’s Printable, It’s Programmable, It’s E. Coli”

PLA: The Plastic That Grows

If you’ve ever taken a coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, the one thing that’s sure to impress you is the mind-bogglingly immense amount of corn that we grow here. If you take the northern route — I’ve done it seven times, so I know it by heart — you’ll see almost nothing but corn from Ohio to Montana. The size of the fields is simply staggering, and you’re left wondering, “Do we really eat all this corn?”

The simple answer is no, we don’t. We grow way more corn than we can eat or, once turned into alcohol, drink. We do feed a lot to animals, many of which subsequently end up as burgers or pork chops. But even after all that, and after accounting for exports, we still have a heck of a lot of corn to put to work. There are lots of industrial uses for this surplus corn, though, and chances are pretty good you’ve got an ear or two worth coiled up next to your 3D-printer, in the form of polylactic acid, or PLA.

Continue reading “PLA: The Plastic That Grows”