3D printed ‘bionic coral’ could help algae farms flourish

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Researchers found a way to 3D print a scaffold infused with algae.
Image: Cambridge University

Coral reefs are some of the most biologically rich environments on Earth. Sadly, they are dying off at alarming rates thanks to things like pollution and energy misuse around the world. Even so, they continue to teach us valuable lessons about fostering life.

Researchers from Cambridge University theorize that using 3D-printed “bionic coral” could help fragile microorganisms flourish. As the world searches for clean energy solutions, algae seems like a promising candidate.

The unique medium is able to grow algae far faster than traditional methods. It’s also teaching researchers a lot about how reefs create opportunities for other life to thrive.

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A Step Further

In the past, researchers have theorized that using 3D printing could help regenerate coral reefs. In fact, a team suggested just a few years ago that a 3D-printed scaffold could be used as a base for new corals to grow on. It isn’t a bad idea.

However, coral needs more than just a synthetic skeleton. Massive coral structures are actually an extremely delicate symbiosis between the coral and other organisms. Many people don’t realize that microorganisms such as algae live inside coral.

There, they use photosynthesis to provide sugar (nutrients) for their host. In turn, the coral supplies the algae with a safe environment.

The research emerging from Cambridge is based on this principle. Rather than 3D printing a rough skeleton, the team actually created a scaffold for algae to grow on. What makes it unique is the fact that algae is actually infused into the material.

Daniel Wangpraseurt, lead author of a paper detailing the technique, says, “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.”

The living gel material used to print the structure is remarkably similar to the kind being used to print human organs and tissue for transplant. Indeed, it seems that the future of 3D printing doesn’t lie in rigid plastics, but in soft, biologically-rich gels.

Helping the Reefs

It’s easy to fathom how a technique like this could help regrow damaged coral reefs. However, the researchers warn that it isn’t so easy. There is more that goes into the coral-growing process than an algae-infused scaffold.

Even so, the technique allows researchers to learn more about how nature’s delicate balance works. One day, this may lead to a method that does foster rapid growth of new corals.

In the meantime, however, this technique isn’t going to waste. The Cambridge team found that the structure is capable of producing algae much faster than a normal medium.

That’s a promising discovery. In fact, it’s so promising that a startup called Mantaz has already been formed to commercialize the technology. Algae has the potential to revolutionize the world as we know it and being able to grow it quickly will be a game-changer.

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