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Researchers Create Living Bricks from Bacteria

Credit: CU Boulder College of Engineering & Applied Science

It’s way less creepy than it sounds.

All building materials are biological, broadly speaking. Wood, clay, glass; even steel originally came from a hole in the ground somewhere. However, biological though these things are, they’re definitely not what you would consider “alive.” They’re sturdy and can be shaped, but they can also be expensive to produce en masse, not to mention potentially damaging to the environment. What if I told you there was a kind of construction material that could not only replicate itself freely, but do so without hurting the planet? Sounds like sci-fi, right? Well, it’s not; it’s bacteria.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have developed calcium carbonate bricks with a secret recipe of gelatin, sand, and cyanobacteria. Calcium carbonate is a vital component in tough building materials like limestone and cement, so a free-range source of such bricks means an easy supply of materials for functionally living buildings.

Now, the obvious question I’m sure you’re asking yourself right now is “why would we want living buildings?” Fair question, it does sound kind of gross and weird. But there are actually quite a few benefits to living structures. For example, living structures could heal superficial damage like skin. The cyanobacteria that makes up the bricks absorbs carbon dioxide, which would be great for the environment. Coolest of all, with a bit of genetic tinkering, the bacteria could generate a bio-luminescent glow on command, which could help conserve energy as well as just look awesome.

“We know that bacteria grow at an exponential rate,” the study’s head, Wil Srubar said. “That’s different than how we, say, 3-D-print a block or cast a brick. If we can grow our materials biologically, then we can manufacture at an exponential scale.” He added that “Nature has figured out how to do a lot of things in a clever and efficient way. We just need to pay more attention.”