Seaweed-based ‘living material’ could be used to clean up pollutants

20 September 2023 | Muriel Cozier

‘What’s innovative is pairing of a polymer material with a biological system to create a living material…’

Researchers at the University of California, US, have created a seaweed-based polymer which, combined with genetically engineered bacteria, could be used in cleaning pollutants from water. In addition, the engineered bacteria can be neutralised in the presence of theophylline, a molecule of which trace amounts can be found in tea and coffee.

Published in Nature Communications, the research is a result of collaboration between material scientists, engineers, and biologists at UC San Diego Materials Research Science and Engineering Centre.

The so-called ‘engineered living material’ is made from alginate, which is hydrated to form a gel and is then mixed with cyanobacteria. This mixture can then be passed through a 3D printer to form a grid-like structure, which the researchers found was optimal for keeping the bacteria alive.

Microalgae – or phytoplankton – have recently been attracting significant attention thanks to their promising applications across a range of industries. We recently delved into this exciting area of development in Journal Highlights.

In addition, this configuration has a high surface area to volume ratio – placing more of the cyanobacteria near the surface of the material and providing access to nutrients, light and gas.

The engineered bacteria produce the enzyme laccase, which studies have shown can be used to destroy a range of organic pollutants including bisphenol-A, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, and dyes. In the published research the novel material was used to decontaminate water containing indigo carmine, a dye used in the textile industry.

Jon Pokorski, Professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego and co-leader of the research said: ‘The living material can act on the pollutant of interest, then a small molecule can be added afterwards to kill the bacteria. This way we can alleviate any concerns about having genetically modified bacteria lingering in the environment.’

The researchers noted that ongoing studies would investigate ways to eliminate the engineered bacteria without the addition of the neutralising agent.

‘What’s innovative is pairing of a polymer material with a biological system to create a living material that can function and respond to stimuli in ways that regular synthetic materials cannot,’ Professor Pokorski added.

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