Water purification can be achieved by combining living cells with polymer 3D printing.

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In an intriguing project conducted at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), a unique approach to decontaminating water was explored. With water pollution becoming an increasingly pressing issue in many regions, the need for effective and sustainable methods of water purification is of utmost importance. The conventional methods of water filtration are not always efficient, and in some cases, they are non-existent.

To address this problem, the researchers at UCSD sought to create an “engineered living material” by combining living cells with polymer 3D printing. The idea was to develop a material that could specifically target and consume undesirable organic molecules in water, transforming them into harmless substances through biological processes.

The key component of this living material was a polymer derived from seaweed, making it an eco-friendly choice. By using alginate, a natural polymer obtained from seaweed, the researchers created a gel-like substance, which was then blended with cyanobacteria – a type of water-dwelling, photosynthetic bacteria. These bacteria were genetically modified to possess the ability to break down the targeted organic molecules.

Now, one might wonder why the researchers did not simply introduce the bacteria directly into the contaminated water. The reason behind this approach is twofold. Firstly, as the bacteria were genetically modified, it was essential to prevent their escape into the environment. Therefore, the bacteria needed to be “caged” in some way while still being exposed to the contaminated water. Secondly, the 3D printed polymer structure enabled maximum surface area exposure to the bacteria, as well as the necessary nutrients and sunlight. This was made possible by designing a complex geometry that could be easily created using 3D printing technology.

Another advantage of housing the bacteria within the 3D printed structure was the ability to deactivate them when required. The researchers developed a specific chemical that, upon encountering the bacteria, caused them to die off. While the team is currently exploring methods to make the bacteria automatically expire once their task is complete, this remains a goal for future projects.

A video demonstrating the printing process and an experiment showcasing the bacteria successfully removing a common industrial dye from a water sample brings the project to life. It is truly fascinating to witness the possibilities that arise when genetic engineering and 3D printing are combined in such a groundbreaking way.

This innovative research project not only holds promise for the development of a safe and effective means of purifying contaminated water but also highlights the potential of merging genetic engineering and 3D printing in ways previously unimagined. The collaboration between living cells and polymer-based technologies opens up a realm of possibilities for addressing environmental challenges facing our society today.

(Source: University of California, San Diego)

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