It’s Alive! It’s Alive! Not Quite

Aug. 17, 2016

Many countless blogs ago I wrote about researchers at Cardiff University in Wales who were creating a “self-healing” concrete. This is cement that would be able to repair itself as cracks and other types of erosion or deformation occur.

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It didn’t take long after for other researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, to start developing and designing tools and methods for self-healing, programmable, living building materials. DARPA is launching what it calls the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program with the goal of creating a new type of materials that combines the typical structural advantages of traditional building material with the benefits of living systems.

This excerpt is from DARPA’s website:

“Living materials represent a new opportunity to leverage engineered biology to solve existing problems associated with the construction and maintenance of built environments, and to create new capabilities to craft smart infrastructure that dynamically responds to its surroundings.

“The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM program manager Justin Gallivan. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Grown materials are not entirely new, but their current manifestations differ substantially from the materials Gallivan envisions. For instance, biologically sourced structural materials can already be grown into specified sizes and shapes from inexpensive feedstocks; packing materials derived from fungal mycelium and building blocks made from bacteria and sand are two modern examples. And, of course, wood has been used for ages. However, these products are rendered inert during the manufacturing process, so they exhibit few of their components’ original biological advantages. Scientists are making progress with three-dimensional printing of living tissues and organs, using scaffolding materials that sustain the long-term viability of the living cells. These cells are derived from existing natural tissues, however, and are not engineered to perform synthetic functions. And current cell-printing methods are too expensive to produce building materials at necessary scales.”

The research and development is definitely not going to be easy or quick…

“The long-term objective of the ELM program is to develop an ability to engineer structural properties directly into the genomes of biological systems so that neither scaffolds nor external development cues are needed for an organism to realize the desired shape and properties. Achieving this goal will require significant breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of developmental pathways and how those pathways direct the three-dimensional development of multicellular systems.

Work on ELM will be fundamental research carried out in controlled laboratory settings. DARPA does not anticipate environmental release during the program.”

It’s good to know that we’ll at least have some material to work with once we solve this problem of infrastructure funding and finally get to work rebuilding our infrastructure.