Squid inspired 3-D printing

The next big thing in 3-D printing might be some very fishy plastic.

An illustration of a squid acting as a 3-D printer. Credit: Adriás Bago

3-D printers work by "printing" with thermoplastic - that is, plastic that can melt and then harden back into the same solid state it was in before upon cooling - instead of ink. But according to a new study in Advanced Functional Materialssynthetic plastics might end up getting the boot in favor of ones inspired by nature.

Earlier last year, researchers reported in Nature Biotechnology that squid suckers might hold the key to environmentally friendly, lab-grown materials usable in everything from reconstructive surgery to product packaging.

On each of a squid's many suction cups, there sits a ring of super-sharp teeth that allow them to catch hold of prey. Lead by Nanyang Technological University researcher Ali Miserez, Nature Biotechnology team showed that these sucker ring teeth (SRT) are made up entirely of proteins instead of relying on minerals the way that bones and many other hard materials do. So if they could harness these SRT proteins, they said, they could use them to build tough, adaptable materials.

In the new study, researchers lead by Penn State professor of engineering science and mechanics Melik C. Demirel successfully synthesized thermoplastics from SRT proteins. Demirel and his team inserted the SRT protein genes into E. coli, a rapidly reproducing bacteria commonly used in lab experiments. The harmless bacteria began to produce SRT proteins, which could then be removed and used as thermoplastics.

They report that this home-grown squid plastic is quite strong, and can stick to other materials even if they're wet. Because it's protein-based, they hope it can be used safely for medical and cosmetic applications.

Whether or not your next 3-D printer filament comes from a cephalopod, one thing is for certain: Scientists are hard at work to shift us from fossil fuel-based materials to ones that we can grow endless supplies of in a petri dish.

Original publication:

Abdon Pena-Francesch, Sergio Florez, Huihun Jung, Aswathy Sebastian, Istvan Albert, Wayne Curtis, Melik C. Demirel. Proteins: Materials Fabrication from Native and Recombinant Thermoplastic Squid Proteins (Adv. Funct. Mater. 47/2014). Advanced Functional Materials, 2014; 24 (47): 7393 DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201470302

Source: Pennsylvania State University (By Rachel Feltman)