Inspired by kombucha tea, engineers create “living materials” - MIT News
Jan 11, 2021 1 min, 44 secs

Engineers at MIT and Imperial College London have developed a new way to generate tough, functional materials using a mixture of bacteria and yeast similar to the “kombucha mother” used to ferment tea.

Using this mixture, also called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), the researchers were able to produce cellulose embedded with enzymes that can perform a variety of functions, such as sensing environmental pollutants.

They also showed that they could incorporate yeast directly into the material, creating “living materials” that could be used to purify water or to make “smart” packaging materials that can detect damage.

These fermentation factories, which usually contain one species of bacteria and one or more yeast species, produce ethanol, cellulose, and acetic acid, which gives kombucha tea its distinctive flavor.

Most of the wild yeast strains used for fermentation are difficult to genetically modify, so the researchers replaced them with a strain of laboratory yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

They combined the yeast with a type of bacteria called Komagataeibacter rhaeticus, which their collaborators at Imperial College London had previously isolated from a kombucha mother.

Because the researchers used a laboratory strain of yeast, they could engineer the cells to do any of the things that lab yeast can do — for example, producing enzymes that glow in the dark, or sensing pollutants in the environment.

Meanwhile, the bacteria in the culture produce large-scale quantities of tough cellulose to serve as a scaffold.

The researchers designed their system so that they can control whether the yeast themselves, or just the enzymes that they produce, are incorporated into the cellulose structure.

To demonstrate the potential of their microbe culture, which they call “Syn-SCOBY,” the researchers created a material incorporating yeast that senses estradiol, which is sometimes found as an environmental pollutant.

In another version, they used a strain of yeast that produces a glowing protein called luciferase when exposed to blue light

The culture can be grown in normal yeast culture medium, which the researchers used for most of their studies, but they have also shown that it can grow in tea with sugar

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