A living tattoo that’s also a computer.

Science Daily reveals how MIT researchers used 3D printing to create the world’s first temporary tattoo made from living cells that act as sensors or circuits:

The cells are engineered to light up in response to a variety of stimuli. When mixed with a slurry of hydrogel and nutrients, the cells can be printed, layer by layer, to form three-dimensional, interactive structures and devices.

The team has then demonstrated its technique by printing a “living tattoo” — a thin, transparent patch patterned with live bacteria cells in the shape of a tree. Each branch of the tree is lined with cells sensitive to a different chemical or molecular compound. When the patch is adhered to skin that has been exposed to the same compounds, corresponding regions of the tree light up in response.

The researchers, led by Xuanhe Zhao, the Noyce Career Development Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science, say that their technique can be used to fabricate “active” materials for wearable sensors and interactive displays.

Zhao’s team, working with bioengineers in Lu’s lab, realized that live cells might also serve as responsive materials for 3D-printed inks, particularly as they can be genetically engineered to respond to a variety of stimuli. The researchers are not the first to consider 3-D printing genetically engineered cells; others have attempted to do so using live mammalian cells, but with little success.

“It turns out those cells were dying during the printing process, because mammalian cells are basically lipid bilayer balloons,” Yuk says. “They are too weak, and they easily rupture.”

Instead, the team identified a hardier cell type in bacteria. Bacterial cells have tough cell walls that are able to survive relatively harsh conditions, such as the forces applied to ink as it is pushed through a printer’s nozzle. Furthermore, bacteria, unlike mammalian cells, are compatible with most hydrogels — gel-like materials that are made from a mix of mostly water and a bit of polymer. The group found that hydrogels can provide an aqueous environment that can support living bacteria.

To test the patch, the researchers smeared several chemical compounds onto the back of a test subject’s hand, then pressed the hydrogel patch over the exposed skin. Over several hours, branches of the patch’s tree lit up when bacteria sensed their corresponding chemical stimuli.

The researchers also engineered bacteria to communicate with each other; for instance they programmed some cells to light up only when they receive a certain signal from another cell. To test this type of communication in a 3-D structure, they printed a thin sheet of hydrogel filaments with “input,” or signal-producing bacteria and chemicals, overlaid with another layer of filaments of an “output,” or signal-receiving bacteria. They found the output filaments lit up only when they overlapped and received input signals from corresponding bacteria .

Yuk says in the future, researchers may use the team’s technique to print “living computers” — structures with multiple types of cells that communicate with each other, passing signals back and forth, much like transistors on a microchip.

“This is very future work, but we expect to be able to print living computational platforms that could be wearable,” Yuk says.

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