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3D-printed seaweed polymer cleans up wastewater pollutants

Swatches | January 1, 2024 | By:

UC San Diego researchers have developed a “living material,” made of a seaweed-based polymer combined with genetically engineered bacteria, that could offer a sustainable and eco-friendly solution to clean pollutants, such as textile dye, from water. Image: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering/David Baillot

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have created a living material that can help clean up pollutants in water, including textile dyes. The gel, made from alginate, a polymer derived from seaweed, and cyanobacteria, was engineered to produce an enzyme that can neutralize chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), pharmaceuticals and dyes. 

The team 3D-printed the gel into a lattice shape—found to be the best shape to keep the bacteria alive—and tested its efficacy with a solution containing indigo carmen, a common denim dye. The researchers also installed an “off switch” in the material, whereby it will self-destruct in the presence of the molecule theophylline, found in tea and chocolate.

“The living material can act on the pollutant of interest; then a small molecule can be added afterwards to kill the bacteria,” says Jon Pokorski, a professor of nanoengineering who co-led the research. “This way, we can alleviate any concerns about having genetically modified bacteria lingering in the environment.”

The research was published in August 2023 in Nature Communications.

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