3D-printed live bacteria creates world's first "living tattoo"

Scientists Develop 3D Printed'Living Tattoo

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new 3D printable hydrogel responsive materials or "living ink" which is capable of sensing and responding to stimuli.

Zhao, Lu, and their colleagues have published their results today in the journal Advanced Materials. The bacteria is also compatible with most hydrogels-gel-like materials that are made from a mix of mostly water and a polymer. Applying such compounds to areas of the skin causes the "tree" to light up in response.

Using a 3D printer, researchers have created a living tattoo that could be used for the next generation of wearable devices. In recent years, scientists have tried to print genetically engineered cells of mammals without much success.

The researchers came up with a recipe for their 3-D ink, using a combination of bacteria, hydrogel, and nutrients to sustain the cells and maintain their functionality.

The 3D printed tattoos also have the potential to be adapted for applications in drug delivery and surgical implants as they could be built to contain "cells engineered to produce compounds such as glucose", which could be released into the body gradually and even on demand. Their prototype tattoo looks like a branching tree graph, where different parts of the graphic respond to different types of external stimuli. 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. "We can also print relatively large-scale structures, measuring several centimeters", Professor Zhao said.

As seen in their tree-shaped proof-of-concept, the engineers can use this technique in flexible, wearable stickers and patches, when this bacterial mixture is printed and cured on a layer of stretchy elastomer.

Then, like a tattoo, the finished hydrogel patch was placed on the back of a hand that had been covered in the reactive chemicals. The process took some hours, but the branches started glowing as soon as the bacteria sensed their corresponding chemicals. Complex structures could be created that contain many different types of engineered cells that communicate with each other in the same way as transistors on a microchip. The output filaments only lit up when they overlapped with the input layer and received a signal from them.

Now that they've developed a way to print the cells and keep them alive, they can program tattoos to be responsive to all sorts of things.

The ultimate outcomes for the technology are incredibly futuristic, with the team suggesting the technique could conceivably lead to the development of a kind of "living computer".

"We can use bacterial cells like workers in a 3D factory". 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.

"This is very future work, but we expect to be able to print living computational platforms that could be wearable", Yuk says.

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