Once in place, bacteria can carry out advanced chemical reactions to create a wide range of materials, many of which could be modeled from the natural world.
"There are several species of animal that can make bioglass," said Dr. Meyer, including sea sponges that use it for internal skeletons.
Borrowing that technique could lead to microlenses that increase the efficiency of light collection, from photography to photovoltaic electricity production.
The team is already 3D printing plaque, the bacterial biofilm that grows inside the mouth, onto teeth — with an eye towards helping those who study oral hygiene figure out how to get rid of it.
Rather than use fake teeth, the researches opted for the genuine article. "My student went down to the butcher and got some cow teeth," Dr. Meyer said. "It's kind of funny, because he's a vegan."
"Our engineered bacteria stick much better to the cow teeth than non-engineered bacteria," Meyer said.
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Their approach to 3D printing bacteria may also prove effective in constructing objects out of graphene — the buzzy supermaterial that, as a sheet of carbon atoms, is harder than diamonds and conducts electricity more efficiently than copper.
One approach to making graphene starts with another chemical precursor called graphene oxide, and then chemically reduces it.
"Chemical reduction approaches are typically very energy intensive, and can make a lot of chemical waste," Meyer said.
A specific strain of bacteria, on the other hand, can serve as a reducing agent, stripping away oxygen atoms from the material.
"We can mix up graphene oxide with this bacteria, leave it on the counter overnight, and when we come back the next day, it has made graphene by reducing the graphene oxide," Meyer said. "You don't have to have a chemical lab to do it."
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