At first glance, this headline from Tim McMillan at The Debrief is the sort of opener that could get all of the geeks and nerds in the audience excited. “Army Research Develops ‘Living Material’ that Interacts with its Environment.” What sort of Frankenstein experiments are going on with the Army these days? Creating “living material” sounds suspiciously like the concept of generating artificial life. Reading into the details, however, that’s not exactly what’s going on, but it’s still pretty amazing. Or possibly disturbing, depending on your preferences. They’ve created a material based on some of the components of Kombucha tea (of all things). It incorporates specific types of bacteria and yeast. So rather than actually creating life from inanimate components, they’re actually adding self-sustaining, living organisms into a material generation process. And it wasn’t actually done by the Army, but rather by research teams from MIT and the Imperial College of London on the Army’s behalf.
Engineers at MIT and Imperial College of London discovered that by using a lab-created “fermentation factory,” similar to what is used in Kombucha tea, a unique and novel living material could be produced. “These fermentation factories, which usually contain one species of bacteria and one or more yeast species, produce ethanol, cellulose, and acetic acid that gives kombucha tea its distinctive flavor,” the Army’s statement reads.
By incorporating a strain of laboratory yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae with a type of bacteria called Komagataeibacter rhaeticus, engineers could create a substance that produced large quantities of cellulose.
Because researchers used a laboratory strain of yeast, they could engineer the substance’s cells to function like a living material, capable of sensing pollutants or pathogens in its environment. In addition to detecting threats, engineers could program the bioengineered living material to break down pollutants or pathogens or even heal itself.
That certainly sounds like some weird science. Of course, we already learned that the Navy has been working on technology to warp the fabric of space and time, so I suppose the Army needed to get something crazy of their own going.
As I mentioned above, this didn’t turn out to be some sort of human-driven second Genesis. The bacteria and the yeast were already alive when they were introduced into the process, so we thankfully still haven’t crossed over that line yet. The creation of an actual lifeform in a laboratory has long been a goal of scientists, but the possible repercussions and ramifications strike me as quite frightening to be honest.
A material that is capable of replicating and even repairing itself does sound like something that could be useful in any number of applications. The report suggests that these materials could “learn” to detect certain pollutants and remove them from its environment. The material could be customized by swapping out various types of yeast that respond to different environmental stimuli.
Of course, the drawback to any sort of “living material” is that it has to have a constant supply of food in order to survive. Without a steady food supply, usually in the form of some sort of sugar, yeast will either die or go dormant. The same is true for bacteria.
There’s still something alarming about this, though. Speaking strictly as a layman, I find myself getting nervous when hearing about scientists mixing together different microbial lifeforms in ways they normally wouldn’t behave or encounter each other in nature. Isn’t that how we wound up with the novel coronavirus? Whether it came from a lab in Wuhan or one of the Chinese “wet markets,” humans were mixing up different organisms in ways that Mother Nature didn’t anticipate and the result was spectacularly disastrous. Now all they need to do is figure out a way to introduce some general Artificial Intelligence into this biological soup and SKYNET should be just around the corner.
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