Engineers at MIT and Imperial College London have developed a new way to generate tough, functional materials using a mixture of bacteria and yeast similar to the “kombucha mother” used to ferment tea.
Using this mixture, also called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), the researchers were able to produce cellulose embedded with enzymes that can perform a variety of functions, such as sensing environmental pollutants. They also showed that they could incorporate yeast directly into the material, creating “living materials” that could be used to purify water or to make “smart” packaging materials that can detect damage.
Kombucha inspires engineers
While engineered living materials have been created in the past using non-food microbes E. coli and filamentous fungi, scaling up their production had proven to be challenging since current technologies required trained personnel and strict conditions. However, this study might have overcome such problems standing in the way by taking inspiration from the beloved tea kombucha.
The team of engineers, influenced by the natural symbiotic approach of the kombucha SCOBY, combined genetically engineered baker’s yeast cells with cellulose-producing bacteria called Komagataeibacter rhaeticus, which was previously isolated from a kombucha mother by the scientists at Imperial College London, making a “Syn-SCOBY”. They were thus able to create a mutually beneficial symbiotic culture.
“We foresee a future where diverse materials could be grown at home or in local production facilities, using biology rather than resource-intensive centralized manufacturing,” says Timothy Lu, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering.
Lu and Tom Ellis, a professor of bioengineering at Imperial College London, are the senior authors of the paper, which appears today in Nature Materials. The paper’s lead authors are MIT graduate student Tzu-Chieh Tang and Cambridge University postdoc Charlie Gilbert.