Sustainable Solution with Revolutionary Engineered Living Material

Engineered Living Material

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have pioneered an extraordinary approach to combat water pollution. Their groundbreaking creation, an “engineered living material,” holds the promise of revolutionizing the environmental cleanup industry.

Researchers published the study, “Phenotypically Complex Living Materials Containing Engineered Cyanobacteria” in Nature Communications.

The Ingenious Combination

This innovative material is a 3D-printed structure composed of a seaweed-based polymer intricately fused with genetically modified bacteria. These bacteria have been engineered to produce a potent enzyme capable of converting various organic pollutants into harmless molecules. Additionally, they possess a unique self-destruct mechanism when exposed to a common molecule found in tea and chocolate, theophylline.

A Novel Discovery

The remarkable development of this decontaminating material has been detailed in a research paper published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications. Researchers from diverse disciplines, including engineers, materials scientists, and biologists, collaborated at the UC San Diego Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).

Transforming Biology for a Cleaner Future

Susan Golden and James Golden, molecular biology professors, and Shaochen Chen, a nanoengineering professor, jointly led this multidisciplinary effort. Their partnership merged genetic expertise with materials innovation to forge a living material with transformative potential.

The Birth of the Engineered Living Material

To construct this Engineered Living Material, the scientists employed alginate, a natural seaweed-derived polymer, which was transformed into a gel and combined with cyanobacteria. These photosynthetic bacteria were optimized for water environments and used in a 3D printing process.

Optimal Design for Maximum Efficiency

Extensive experimentation led to the discovery that a grid-like structure was ideal for sustaining the bacteria. This design boasts a high surface area to volume ratio, ensuring that the cyanobacteria can efficiently access essential nutrients, gases, and light. This heightened surface area also enhances its decontamination capabilities.

Transforming Pollutants into Purity

In a proof-of-concept demonstration, researchers genetically engineered the cyanobacteria to produce a decontaminating enzyme known as laccase. Studies have shown that laccase can effectively neutralize various organic pollutants, including common contaminants like bisphenol A (BPA), pharmaceutical drugs, and textile dyes. The living material successfully decontaminated a solution containing the textile dye indigo carmine, commonly used in denim production.

A Sustainable Approach to Cleanup

One of the most remarkable aspects of this living material is its built-in mechanism to eliminate the cyanobacteria once their decontamination task is complete. Triggered by the molecule theophylline, the genetically engineered bacteria produce a protein that destroys their own cells. This elegant solution ensures that genetically modified bacteria do not persist in the environment.

A Promising Future

The researchers emphasize that the ultimate goal is to have the bacteria self-destruct without the addition of any chemicals. This forward-looking research direction holds the promise of a sustainable and eco-friendly future, where water pollution can be effectively addressed using nature-inspired innovations.

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