This 'slimy' 3D-printed biofilm could fight life-threatening bacteria and save many lives

'We're excited to share the first glimpses of this technology'
Nergis Firtina
Microscope view of bacteria flowing
Microscopic view of bacteria flowing


Montana State University's Center for Biofilm Engineering scientists has developed a life-saving innovation using 3D printing technology.

The development is 'life-saving' because the tool helps replicate the microbes- also known as life-threatening bacteria.

"We're excited to share the first glimpses of this technology," said Isaak Thornton, a student earning his doctorate in mechanical engineering.

Thornton and microbiology doctoral student Kathryn Zimlich presented their study during the annual Montana Biofilm Meeting in Bozeman on July 12-14.

Biofilm is the term for the slimy mats formed when bacteria and other germs adhere to surfaces and form complex communities that are frequently resistant to conventional disinfectants.

As a credit to advancing biofilm technology, Zimlich and Thornton have spent the last two years developing and testing a 3D printing system that can accurately arrange a grid of individual bacteria in the hydrogel, a transparent, Jell-O-like substance.

The researchers successfully mapped out the microorganisms within drops of liquid hydrogel resin using 3D printing technology. Then a laser light was used to solidify the material to create a basic biofilm.

This 'slimy' 3D-printed biofilm could fight life-threatening bacteria and save many lives
MSU microbiology doctoral students Kathryn Zimlich and Isaak Thornton.

"We can spatially arrange and encapsulate cells exactly where we want them," said Thornton, who is conducting the research in the lab of Jim Wilking, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

At what stage is the study?

Zimlich and Thornton used only one type of bacteria in this study. Still, by utilizing the 3D printer to make numerous passes, each with a different species or strain of bacteria, they also may be able to begin to produce the more complex and layered biofilms found in nature.

As said in the statement, researchers can easily observe the bacteria using specialized microscopes by giving the bacteria fluorescent dye, enabling them to investigate the interactions between the cells.

"One thing that’s becoming clearer is that there’s potential to treat these pathogenic bacteria by altering the interactive biofilm environment instead of trying to use harsh chemical products,” said Zimlich.

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3D companies are willing to produce biofilms

The new 3D printing equipment will be useful for extensive testing necessary to develop treatments in a controlled lab setting. As such, many leading 3D printer companies, such as Procter and Gamble, 3M, and Ecolabin, showed interest in the research, as per the statement.

They are eager to develop new ways of effectively controlling problem biofilms, according to Paul Sturman, who coordinates the center's work with its roughly 30 industrial partners.

"It’s really all about helping them develop products that are useful," Sturman said.

"The meeting is a great way for our members to keep apprised of the latest biofilm research. And we get to showcase the work we’re doing and are capable of doing.”

About biofilms

A biofilm is a cluster of microorganisms in which cells adhere to each other and to their surface. These interconnected cells are usually embedded in an extracellular polymeric substance (EPS) produced by them. Biofilm EPS is a polymeric complex of DNA, proteins, and polysaccharides. Biofilms can form on living or non-living surfaces and represent the dominant aspect of microbial life in natural, industrial, and hospital settings.

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