Scientists are using 3D printing technology to investigate bacteria and its ability to interact with other bacterial species.

Microbes often suspend themselves in colonies of various sizes and shapes, where they can communicate with eachother. It’s these interactions that can determine how deadly or resistant to antibiotics they are.

Germ on Petri Dish

Researchers are sculpting colonies into custom shapes with the help of a 3D printer. They produce gelatin-based bacterial breeding grounds, which can be formed into pretty much any 3D shape, including pyramids and nested spheres.

Jason Shear, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas, said that with this 3D printing technique  they are hoping to answer questions like  “how many bacteria have to be clustered together, and in what size and what shape, in order for that microcolony to start acting differently than the cells do on their own.”

When bacteria cluster together they become like a glue type of substance creating biofilms, this makes them resistant to antibiotics and the immune system. Being able to understand the biofilms and bacteria communities is vital in learning how to fight their defences and create effective treatments for patients.

Printing The Bacteria

Shear explains that his team add bacterial cells to a gelatin mixture, which is then cooled to solidify. Then using a laser, they carve out capsules around the suspended bacteria. When these capsules are warmed, most of the gelatin melts away and leaves behind hideouts where the bacteria can breed.

The equipment that the researchers use is expensive but Shear said they are working on ways of finding alternatives, like a cheaper laser.

“As with commercial 3D printing, I think there is a strong likelihood that the cost of the equipment could come down dramatically,” he said.

If you want to read more about this fascinating application of 3D printing then the researchers will be reporting their work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[Image via Press Release Ink]