Bacteria spur technological innovations

Wyss Institute researchers are using bacterial biofilms to produce new self-healing materials and bioprocessing technologies that could one day be used to clean up polluted rivers or manufacture new medicines.

Biofilms are communities of bacteria ensconced in a super tough matrix of extracellular material composed of sugars, proteins, genetic material and more. They are also able to self-assemble and self-heal.

By altering the composition of the extracellular material that encases the bacteria that make up biofilms, the Wyss Institute team was able to turn the biofilm into a self-replicating production platform to churn out whatever material they wish to produce.

Together with a novel protein engineering system that they developed called BIND (Biofilm Integrated Nanofiber Display), the researchers can redefine biofilms as large-scale production platforms that can be programmed to provide functions not currently possible with existing materials.

For now the team has demonstrated the ability to program E. coli biofilms that stick to certain substrates, such as steel, others that can immobilize an array of proteins or promote the templating of silver for construction of nanowires.

But Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D, sees a bigger future for this type of work with biofilms, saying it “offers a glimpse into a much more environmentally sustainable future where gargantuan factories are reduced to the size of a cell that we can program to manufacture new materials that meet our everyday needs – from textiles to energy and environmental clean–up.”


Photo credit: Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

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