Basically this "ink" consists of hydrogel that is filled with bacteria that is genetically programmed to light up when it comes into contact with certain types of chemicals.
On a more pragmatic front, they can be bonded with common materials and used to detect environmental chemicals and pollutants as well as changes in pH or temperature.
Xuanhe Zhao said in a statement: "We found this new ink formula works very well and can print at a high resolution of about 30 micrometres per feature".
These cells have been programmed to light up in response to a variety of stimuli and when they're mixed with hydrogel and other nutrients, they form a structure which can be printed layer by layer, much like the conventional 3D printers of today - except this one's alive.
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To demonstrate the living ink's abilities, the researchers printed the hydrogel in a tree pattern with different sections of the tree's branches containing bacteria sensitive to different types of chemicals. Since the cells were too weak, they easily ruptured. To illustrate the technique, they call this structure a "living tattoo" even though it is not printed into living skin and is therefore not in fact a tattoo.
As a solution, the MIT research team turned to bacteria cells, which tend to have tougher cell walls than mammalian cells and can endure harsher environments.
A new paradigm in 3D printing is reported by using genetically programed cells as active components to print living materials and devices. "We can also print relatively large-scale structures, measuring several centimeters", he said.
The finished hydrogel patch was then placed on the back of a hand that had been smeared with those different chemicals. The process took some hours, but the branches started glowing as soon as the bacteria sensed their corresponding chemicals.
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The MIT researchers have stated that with further development, it may be possible to have the cells communicate with each other. For instance, some cells will only light up when they receive a signal from another cell or group of cells. The receiving bacteria only lit up when they overlapped and receive "input" from the signalling bacteria in the lower layer. Other things could include patches reactive to temperature or air quality and drug capsules with cells modified to release compounds like glucose over time. They can be engineered to produce drugs within a 3-D scaffold, and applications should not be confined to epidermal devices.
"This is very future work, but we expect to be able to print living computational platforms that could be wearable", Yuk says. And, "as long as the fabrication method and approach are viable" applications such as implants and ingestibles aren't off the table either, the authors conclude. The paper's co-authors are graduate students Xinyue Liu, Hyunwoo Yuk, Shaoting Lin, German Alberto Parada, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eléonore Tham, and postdoc Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez.
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