Genetically engineered bacteria make living materials for self-repairing walls and cleaning up pollution

As a material, bacteria’s ability to rapidly multiply and adapt to different conditions is an asset. Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

by Sara Molinari, Rice University

With just an incubator and some broth, researchers can grow reusable filters made of bacteria to clean up polluted water, detect chemicals in the environment, and protect surfaces from rust and mold.

I am a synthetic biologist who studies engineered living materials – substances made from living cells that have a variety of functions. In my recently published research, I programmed bacteria to form living materials that can not only be modified for different applications, but are also quick and easy to produce.

From living cells to usable materials

Like human cells, bacteria contain DNA that provides the instructions to build proteins. Bacterial DNA can be modified to instruct the cell to build new proteins, including ones that don’t exist in nature. Researchers can even control exactly where these proteins will be located within the cell.

Because engineered living materials are made of living cells, they can be genetically engineered to perform a broad variety of functions, almost like programming a cellphone with different apps. For example, researchers can turn bacteria into sensors for environmental pollutants by modifying them to change color in the presence of certain molecules. Researchers have also used bacteria to create limestone particles, the chemical used to make Styrofoam and living photovoltaics, among others.

Living organisms can be used to “grow” materials to make clothes and furniture.

A primary challenge for engineered living materials has been figuring out how to induce them to produce a matrix, or substances surrounding the cell, that allows researchers to control the physical properties of the final material, such as its viscosity, elasticity and stiffness. To address this, my team and I created a system to encode this matrix in the bacteria’s DNA.

We modified the DNA of the bacteria Caulobacter crescentus so that the bacterial cells would produce on their surfaces a matrix made of large amounts of elastic proteins. These elastic proteins have the ability to bind to each other and form hydrogels, a type of material that can retain large amounts of water.

When two genetically modified bacterial cells come in close proximity, these proteins come together and keep the cells attached to each other. By surrounding each cell with this sticky, elastic material, bacterial cells will cluster together to form a living slime.

Furthermore, we can modify the elastic proteins to change the properties of the final material. For example, we could turn bacteria into hard construction materials that have the ability to self-repair in the event of damage. Alternatively, we could turn bacteria into soft materials that could be used as fillers in products.

The living material advantage

Usually, creating multifunctional materials is extremely difficult, due in part to very expensive processing costs. Like a tree growing from a seed, living materials, on the other hand, grow from cells that have minimal nutrient and energy requirements. Their biodegradability and minimal production requirements allow for sustainable and economical production.

The technology to make living materials is unsophisticated and cheap. It only takes a shaking incubator, proteins and sugars to grow a multifunctional, high-performing material from bacteria. The incubator is just a metal or plastic box that keeps the temperature at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius), which is much lower than a conventional home oven, and shakes the cells at speeds slower than a blender.

Transforming bacteria into living materials is also a quick process. My team and I were able to grow our bacterial living materials in about 24 hours. This is pretty fast compared to the manufacturing process of other materials, including living materials like wood that can take years to produce.

As shown in this video of Caulobacter crescentus colonizing a surface, bacteria multiply very quickly and very easily.

Moreover, our living bacterial slime is easy to transport and store. It can survive in a jar at room temperature for up to three weeks and placed back into a fresh medium to regrow. This could lower the cost of future technology based on these materials.

Lastly, engineered living materials are an environmentally friendly technology. Because they are made of living cells, they are biocompatible, or nontoxic, and biodegradable, or naturally decomposable.

Next steps

There are still some aspects of our bacterial living material that need to be clarified. For example, we don’t know exactly how the proteins on the bacterial cell surface interact with each other, or how strongly they bind to each other. We also don’t know exactly how many protein molecules are required to keep cells together.

Answering these questions will enable us to further customize living materials with desired qualities for different functions.

Next, I’m planning to explore growing different types of bacteria as living materials to expand the applications they can be used for. Some types of bacteria are better than others for different purposes. For example, some bacteria survive best in specific environments, such as the human body, soil or fresh water. Some, on the other hand, can adapt to different external conditions, like varying temperature, acidity and salinity.

By having many types of bacteria to choose from, researchers can further customize the materials they can create.

Sara Molinari, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Synthetic Biology, Rice University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Inflation Reduction Act heats up market for critical metals in EV batteries

Read the full story at Supply Chain Dive.

The U.S. “is far behind other nations — even Europe, but especially China — in manufacturing batteries,” one expert said.

Columbia University Dept. of Environmental Health Sciences launches MS track in data science

Read the full story from Columbia University.

The Department of Environmental Health Sciences has launched a new MS track, Environmental Health Data Science—believed to be the first program of its kind offered in the United States. Courses are taught by faculty who are recognized worldwide as leaders in the environmental health sciences and data science.

Most students will complete the MS over two years; there are also part-time and one-year options available. Applications for Fall 2023 are now being accepted (apply online).

Pollution Prevention Works: A Storytelling Challenge for Students

EPA has launched a challenge promoting innovation in pollution prevention at industrial and federal facilities. The Challenge invites high school and college students and to use the TRI P2 Search Tool to identify a TRI facility that has reported implementing source reduction practices and tell a compelling story about how those practices or techniques benefit the business and positively impact communities and the environment. The challenge is open now and all entries must be submitted by February 17, 2023.

LanzaTech and Brookfield form strategic partnership with an initial $500 million commitment

Read the full story at Waste360.

LanzaTech NZ, Inc. (“LanzaTech”), an innovative Carbon Capture and Transformation (“CCT”) company that transforms waste carbon into materials such as sustainable fuels, fabrics, packaging, and other products that people use in their daily lives, announces today a funding partnership with Brookfield Renewable, and its institutional partners, to co-develop and build new commercial-scale production plants that will employ LanzaTech’s CCT technology, which transforms captured carbon into valuable raw material commodities.

Misfits Market and Upcycled Food Association host repurposed food challenge offering nationwide distribution for winning entrepreneur

Read the full story at Waste360.

Today, on the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, Misfits Market and the Upcycled Food Association announced they are launching The Upcycling Challenge, a contest for food entrepreneurs to create an innovative, sustainable, and delicious food product that repurposes excess food or waste. Finalists will pitch new products to a panel of judges at EXPO West in March 2023 in Anaheim, California. Challenge winners will receive a one-year slot placement on Misfits Market with national branding and promotional opportunities and distribution in all 48 lower states, in addition to waived fees for the product to become Upcycled Certified by the Upcycled Food Association.

Nebraska’s first commercial carbon capture project launches

Read the full story at Environment + Energy Leader.

Carbon America, a carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) developer, announced today an agreement with Bridgeport Ethanol to develop a carbon capture and storage project in Nebraska. The project will capture and store approximately 175,000 tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to 95% of total emissions from the ethanol facility’s fermentation process. This is the first commercial project of its kind in the state of Nebraska.

Google launches startup accelerator for the circular economy

Read the full story at GreenBiz.

The tech giant plans to support at least 10 tech startups and NGOs solving circularity challenges.

NCSA leading $3.2 million project to make scientific data more discoverable

Read the full story from NCSA.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ (NCSA) Associate Director for Software Kenton McHenry will be the principal investigator of a newly awarded $3.2 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to standardize how scientific data is described, allowing for search engines for scientific data that not only support discoverability but also facilitate the usage of the data.

The Democratized Cyberinfrastructure for Open Discovery to Enable Research (DeCODER) project, which begins October 1, 2022, will expand and extend the successful EarthCube GeoCODES framework and community to unify data and tool description and reuse across geoscience domains.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Information for Decision Making: A Framework Going Forward

Download the document and visit the interactive webpage.

Climate change, driven by increases in human-produced greenhouse gases and particles (collectively referred to as GHGs), is the most serious environmental issue facing society. The need to reduce GHGs has become urgent as heat waves, heavy rain events, and other impacts of climate change have become more frequent and severe. Since the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, more than 136 countries, accounting for about 80% of total global GHG emissions, have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. A growing number of cities, regional governments, and industries have also made pledges to reduce emissions. Providing decision makers with useful, accurate, and trusted GHG emissions information is a crucial part of this effort.

This report examines existing and emerging approaches used to generate and evaluate GHG emissions information at global to local scales. The report develops a framework for evaluating GHG emissions information to support and guide policy makers about its use in decision making. The framework identifies six criteria or pillars that can be used to evaluate and improve GHG emissions information: usability and timeliness, information transparency, evaluation and validation, completeness, inclusivity, and communication. The report recommends creating a coordinated repository or clearinghouse to operationalize the six pillars, for example, by providing timely, transparent, traceable information; standardized data formats; and governance mechanisms that are coordinated, trusted, and inclusive of the global community.