A joint collaboration between an industrial designer and a microbiologist could pave the way for the development of a bio-film material that could in future prevent catastrophes like the Mississippi River Bridge collapse.
Bio-films are three-dimensional colonies of bacteria that secrete a starchy covering that protects the tiny creatures from predators, UV radiation and antibiotics.
Scientists believe if these bio-films are woven into building material or fabric, it will be possible to create self-regenerative structures and even clothing.
'Ultimately, we want material that is capable of repairing itself. That led us to slimes and jellies,' said David Bramston, a senior lecturer in product design at the University of Lincoln in the UK.
Bio-films function as a unit, cooperating and communicating to stay alive. They also have entirely different properties from free-floating, so-called planktonic, bacteria.
'The genes that are expressed when they're in a bio-film are very different from the genes expressed in a free-floating state,' said Derek Lovley, a professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Bramston and his collaborator, Ron Dixon, head of forensic and biomedical sciences at the University of Lincoln, have focused their research on the actual material that their bacterial strain, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, often grows on slag from the sewers of England.
By studying the surface contours of the slag, Bramston is attempting to learn to grow better biofilms that he can turn into usable material.
The two have broadened their search for lifelike materials outside of slimes, as well.
They said one promising area they've identified is microcapsules, which were used by University of Illinois researchers to create a self-repairing plastic. The UoI group inserted tiny beads of 'healing agent' into a material, which activated by impact, like a glow stick, patched up any fractures.
Bramston and Dixon said, during the course of their research, they also found that smoother surfaces could actually aid bio-film formation, a retrograde thought in the microbiological world.
As such, rougher surfaces in the kitchen or a hospital would prevent the formation of such bio-films, reports Wired News.