3D-Printed Corals Could Save Coral Reefs and Help with Energy Production

The novel bionic corals are actually capable of growing microscopic algae.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Researchers from Cambridge University and the University of California, San Diego have 3D printed coral-inspired structures that could help coral reefs and energy production. The novel bionic corals are actually capable of growing microscopic algae. 


Mimicking coral reefs

"Corals are highly efficient at collecting and using light," said first author Dr. Daniel Wangpraseurt, a Marie Curie Fellow from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. "In our lab, we’re looking for methods to copy and mimic these strategies from nature for commercial applications."

To achieve this, the researchers used a rapid 3D bio-printing technique. This technique can recreate the detailed structures that mimic the complexity of living tissues and can print structures with micrometer-scale resolution in just minutes. This speed is crucial to the survival of structures that incorporate live cells.

"Most of these cells will die if we were to use traditional extrusion-based or inkjet processes because these methods take hours. It would be like keeping a fish out of the water; the cells that we work with won’t survive if kept too long out of their culture media. Our process is high throughput and offers really fast printing speeds, so it’s compatible with human cells, animal cells, and even algae cells in this case," said co-senior author Professor Shaochen Chen, from UC San Diego. 

Scanning living corals

The team used optical coherence tomography to scan living corals and recreate them into 3D printed designs. The 3D bioprinter was custom-made by the researchers and utilized light in order to print coral micro-scale structures in seconds.

"By copying the host microhabitat, we can also use our 3D bio-printed corals as a model system for the coral-algal symbiosis, which is urgently needed to understand the breakdown of the symbiosis during coral reef decline," said Wangpraseurt.

The researchers now argue that there are many applications to their new technology.

"We have recently created a company, called mantaz, that uses coral-inspired light-harvesting approaches to cultivate algae for bioproducts in developing countries. We hope that our technique will be scalable so it can have a real impact on the algal bio sector and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for coral reef death," concluded Wangpraseurt.

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