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Will clothes of the future be made from algae?

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  • Researchers have used 3D printers and a new bioprinting technique on algae to create tough, resilient living materials.
  • This is the first time an engineered photosynthetic material has been physically robust enough for real-world applications.
  • The material is biodegradable and focused on the sustainable production of energy.
  • As well as applications in the textile industry, this new form of printed algae could be used in medicine to help wounds heal faster.

For the first time, researchers have used 3D printers and a new bioprinting technique to print algae into tough, resilient living, photosynthetic materials.

As the researchers report in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, the material has a variety of applications in the energy, medical, and fashion sectors.

Living materials, which are made by housing biological cells within a nonliving matrix, have gained popularity in recent years as scientists recognize that the most robust materials are often those that mimic nature.

“Three-dimensional printing has shown to be an effective technology for fabricating living materials that have many environmental and other benefits,” says Anne S. Meyer, an associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester.

“Our photosynthetic living materials are a huge step forward for the field since they are the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed for real-world applications,” Meyer says.

The work to develop a biologically based material is the latest in a series of research efforts led by Meyer’s lab. Meyer and her research team have used bacteria to develop such industrially important materials as artificial nacre and graphene.

Material ‘feeds’ itself for weeks

To create the photosynthetic materials, the researchers began with a nonliving bacterial cellulose—an organic compound that bacteria produce and excrete. Bacterial cellulose has many important mechanical properties, including flexibility, toughness, strength, and ability to retain its shape, even when twisted, crushed, or otherwise physically distorted.

The bacterial cellulose is like the paper in a printer, while living microalgae acts as the ink. Meyer and her colleagues used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the bacterial cellulose.

The combination of living (microalgae) and nonliving (bacterial cellulose) components resulted in a unique material that has the photosynthetic quality of the algae and the robustness of the bacterial cellulose. The material is tough and resilient while also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and simple and scalable to produce.

The plant-like nature of the material means it can use photosynthesis to “feed” itself over periods of many weeks, and it’s also able to be regenerated—a small sample of the material can be grown onsite to make more materials.

Fashion forward algae

The characteristics of the material make it an ideal candidate for a variety of applications, including new products such as artificial leaves,

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