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Researchers using 3D-printing technology to create biofilms

Altering interactive biofilm environments could be an alternative to using harsh chemical products in the treatment of pathogenic bacteria, according to Montana State University researchers. (Image: Peddalanka Ramesh Babu/Shutterstock)

BOZEMAN, Mont., US: Montana State University (MSU) researchers have developed a 3D-printing device that is able to replicate microbial mosaics and thereby enable the study of new and innovative biofilm treatments. Kathryn Zimlich, a doctoral student at the university’s Center for Biofilm Engineering, says that the research is supporting the hypothesis that altering biofilm environments could present an alternative to the use of chemicals when treating pathogenic bacteria in dynamic biofilm environments.

The university reported that Zimlich and fellow researcher Isaak Thornton, an MSU mechanical engineering doctoral student, have spent two years designing and testing a 3D-printing device that can lay grids of individual bacteria in hydrogel. Advancements in 3D-printing technology have made it possible for the researchers to map the microbes found within drops of liquid hydrogel resin and to use laser light to construct a rudimentary biofilm out of the resin.

“So far Zimlich and Thornton have only used a single species of bacteria, but by using the 3D printer to do multiple passes, each with a different species or strain of bacteria, they could start to create the more complex and layered biofilms found in nature,” the press release read. It explained that by adding fluorescent dye to the bacteria, the researchers are able to observe the microbes using specialised microscopes, making it possible to study the interactions that happen among the cells.

“Even the simplest biofilm systems are complicated,” Zimlich said. “It’s like a forest where there’s a lot of diversity. We’ve needed new tools to see how that diversity develops and is maintained,” she added.

The university highlighted the fact that dynamic biofilm environments can contribute to making microbes resistant to traditional treatments. Research conducted by Dr Phil Stewart, MSU regents professor and biofilm researcher, has shown that a type of bacteria that causes wound infections resists antibiotics owing to the cells in the lower level of the biofilm being cut off from oxygen and other compounds. This causes the cells to become dormant and changes their biology enough to render the drug ineffective, the university explained.

Zimlich commented: “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.”

The research was presented at the Montana Biofilm Meeting in Bozeman on 12–14 July, an annual conference at which researchers and industry partners convene to discuss the latest developments in biofilm science. Dr Paul Sturman, research professor and industrial coordinator at the Center for Biofilm Engineering, commented that there is interest among major industry players such as Procter & Gamble and 3M in developing new methods of controlling biofilms. 

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