Audio explainer: Exploring the fields of bioprinting and biohybrid materials

A series of masks 3D printed by the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group cont

A series of masks 3D printed by the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group contained chemical signals embedded in the material. A layer containing living engineered bacteria was coated onto the masks, and the bacteria produced colors only in those areas that had been treated with the chemical signals. Image: courtesy of the Media Lab’s Mediated Matter Group.

The following audio excerpt and transcript featuresáan explanation of bioprinting and biohybrid materials by MIT graduate student Rachel Smith of the Mediated Matter Group at the Media Lab. It corresponds with thisáMIT News article on those subjects.

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HOST: 3-D printing is everywhere. From bike parts to fashion, to novelty key chains, to tools and light fixtures. We often see it employed to accelerate production processes and prototyping, but what about the biological potential of printing? You may have heard terms such as bioprinting, bioinks or biomaterials, but what exactly are they? We’ve asked Rachel Smith, a graduate student of the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab to explain what bioprinting is and what biohybrid materials are, and to give us some idea of where these fields of study are going.

RACHEL SMITH: Bioprinting and biohybrid materials: though these terms overlap, it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Bioprinting is a type of material fabrication process, whereas biohybrid materials are one type of material resulting from fabrication processes like this. Both bioprinting and biohybrid materials involve the use of living cells.

First, lets think about living cells as fabrication materials: something that you could integrate, like other components, into human-made engineering processes and products.

Many cells can naturally replicate, differentiate, and self-organize, and over time, we have also engineered ways to guide their movement, their growth, and the products that they excrete and consume. Thus, you can think of living cells as sensing and computing machines that are extremely sensitive to their surroundings, but we can control and ’code’ their responses. As a material, they have uniquely responsive and programmable properties.

Bioprinting is the process of printing with living cells. You can include living cells in the ink of a 2D printer, or in the build material for a 3D printer to create tissue-like structures. Currently, 3D-bioprinting can be used to print tissues and organs with the appropriate biological and mechanical properties as the real thing to help with a wide variety of medicinal research. In some cases, researchers print with porous materials that encourage cells to migrate inside and begin to ossify into bone. Another exciting example is 3D printing cardiac cells, which can begin to contract in sync to regenerate mechanical functions of the heart.

Biohybrid materials combine both living and non-living materials to acquire useful properties of both. Currently, the most prominent application for doing this is reconstructing tissues and organs from a combination of synthetic scaffolds and living cells. But, more recently, this idea has expanded to include constructs not found in nature and intended for uses beyond medicine, such as wearables and construction materials.

Already in the works, we have researchers developing biohybrid walls where concrete is blended with mineralizing bacteria for self-healing properties. We have biohybrid fibers spun with microbes, but knit or woven like traditional cloth. The living components in these fibers can produce pigments as dyes, filter heavy metals, or excrete drugs. I like to imagine them being used in fashion, wound dressings, or even environmental remediation. It’s an exciting field to be a part of.

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