3D Printing Coral Homes for Algae

A research team from Cambridge University and the University of California San Diego has found a way to more effectively utilize the symbiosis of coral structures and microalgae, creating new light-harvesting approaches to cultivate algae. These developments could easily help preserving the ecosystem coral reef in the future.

Sustainability and eco-friendly practices have been a touchy subject for many sectors of our industry for a long time, but now, 3D printing might be the answer to one of the most vulnerable areas environmentalism seeks to protect: preserving the ecosystem coral reef.

A Diverse and Productive Ecosystem

Utilizing 3D printing technology, researchers from Cambridge University and the University of California San Diego have created a coral-inspired structure able to grow dense populations of microscopic algae. For their experiments, the research team only used biocompatible materials to fabricate the 3D printed bionic corals, opening the door to new bio-inspired materials and their applications for coral conservation. In the natural ecosystem of a coral reef, algae has an intricate symbiotic relationship with the corals, forming one of the most diverse and productive ecosystem on Earth. To accurately recreate the living corals, the team used optical coherence tomography to scan natural corals and utilise the models as 3D printed designs. This way, they were able to fabricate an artificial host-microenvironment for living microalgae. With their research, the team is trying to recreate these processes for commercial applications.

Rapid 3D Bioprinting

“We developed an artificial coral tissue and skeleton with a combination of polymer gels and hydrogels doped with cellulose nanomaterials to mimic the optical properties of living corals. Cellulose is an abundant biopolymer; it is excellent at scattering light and we used it to optimise delivery of light into photosynthetic algae,” said co-senior author Dr Silvia Vignolini, also Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

After testing various types of microalgae they found growth rates 100 times higher than in the standard liquid growth mediums they used to work with. Their coral-inspired models were able to efficiently redistribute light, just like the natural coral constructs. To create the 3D printed coral structures they needed as incubators, the researchers opted for a rapid 3D bioprinting technique that is able to reproduce detailed structures of natural corals with micrometre-scale resolution in mere minutes, mimicking both the complex growth as well as the functions of living tissues. According to co-senior author Professor Shaochen Chen from UC San Diego, a fast workflow is essential for replicating structures with 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.”

Advancing the Cause

Their new company mantazwill continue to work on coral-inspired light-harvesting approaches to cultivate algae for bioproducts in developing countries. And the team has another altruistic goal in mind: they are hoping to provide an opportunity to advance the understanding of the breakdown of the symbiosis during coral reef decline, through creating a model system for the coral-algal symbiosis.

“We hope that our technique will be scalable so it can have a real impact on the algal biosector and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for coral reef death,” said first author Dr Daniel Wangpraseurt, a Marie Curie Fellow from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

3D printing has shown to have great potential concerning environmental issues in the past. Sydney just recently installed 3D printed living seawall tile on large parts of their coastline, in order to re-attract marine wildlife and improve water quality. And discoveries like these, utilizing even more eco-friendly printing materials, keep all of us looking forward into a brighter and greener future for our planet and the print industry.

What is your favorite eco-friendly advancement of the print industry?