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article imageUsing bacterial biofilms to create new materials

By Tim Sandle     Sep 24, 2014 in Science
A science group believes that bacterial biofilms are a potential new platform for designer nanomaterials. Such materials could clean up polluted rivers, manufacture pharmaceutical products and fabricate new textiles.
Biofilms are normally associated with bacterial contamination, causing problems with water pipework. According to Pharmaceutical Microbiology, a biofilm is any group of microorganisms in which cells stick to each other on a surface. These adherent cells are embedded within a self-produced matrix, which is called an “extracellular polymeric substance” (EPS).
Another property, as noted by this writer, is: “Once a biofilm has formed, it constitutes a micro-niche that provides bacteria with an environment that is highly conducive to their survival while also protecting them from various types of aggression from outside, such as flows of liquids and changes in pH or temperature.”
Researchers have developed a novel protein engineering system called BIND (Biofilm-Integrated Nanofiber Display). The scientists believe that large-scale production of biomaterials that can be programmed into biofilms to provide functions not possible with existing materials.
The research draws upon a remarkable property with biofilms: they can self-assemble and self-heal. To examine this, scientists genetically fused a protein that can adhere to steel onto another type of protein produced by E. coli bacteria. They found that once the combined protein becomes secreted outside the cell it produces a new “super tough proteins” called amyloid nanofibers. Next, it was found that the amyloids can assemble into fibers that, by weight, are stronger than steel and stiffer than silk.
According to Wyss Institute Core Faculty member Neel Joshi, Ph.D: “Most biofilm-related research today focuses on how to get rid of biofilms, but we demonstrate here that we can engineer these super tough natural materials to perform specific functions -- so we may want them around in specific quantities and for specific applications.”
This research could lead to a new generation of microbial factories, producing a new range of useful materials. The findings have been published in Nature Communications, in a study titled “Programmable biofilm-based materials from engineered curli nanofibres.”
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