Bioprinted algae could make artificial leaves

by Andrew Wade

Scientists have developed a new method to 3D print algae into living material which could be used to create artificial leaves or photosynthetic clothing.
(Credit: University of Rochester)

Published in Advanced Functional Materials, the research combined bacterial cellulose with living microalgae, the former acting as the structural support for the latter during the bioprinting process. The technique resulted in a unique, eco-friendly material with the photosynthetic quality of the algae and the robustness of the bacterial cellulose. According to researchers behind the study, the material is tough and resilient but also biodegradable and scalable to produce.

"Three-dimensional printing is a powerful technology for fabrication of living functional materials that have a huge potential in a wide range of environmental and human-based applications,” said first author Srikkanth Balasubramanian, a postdoctoral research associate at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

"We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications.”

Alongside photosynthetic skins and clothing, one of the most exciting potential applications is the creation of artificial leaves. Mimicking the action of natural leaves, the bioprinted replicas could convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy. The researchers claim the synthetic leaves could potentially be used on space stations or future off-world colonies, where real plants may struggle to grow.

"For artificial leaves, our materials are like taking the 'best parts' of plants--the leaves--which can create sustainable energy, without needing to use resources to produce parts of plants--the stems and the roots--that need resources but don't produce energy," said Anne S Meyer, an associate professor of biology at Rochester University, which carried out the work with Delft.

"We are making a material that is only focused on the sustainable production of energy."

The Delft and Rochester team also claim the material could be used to produce eco-friendly clothing which could help address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry. These biogarments would also purify the air by removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and would not need to be washed as often as conventional garments.

"Our living materials are promising because they can survive for several days with no water or nutrients access, and the material itself can be used as a seed to grow new living materials," said Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor of bionanoscience at Delft.

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