Jan 15, 2015 | By Simon

As 3D printing continues to find its way deeper into multiple industries ranging from aerospace to medical and food preparation to science, the applications that those who work in the industries have been able to develop using 3D printers are seemingly boundless.  

Recently, a team of biology researchers from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Texas at Austin have discovered that the strands of DNA molecules - which provide the “source code” for life - are capable of acting as a glue to hold together 3D printed materials that might someday be used to grow tissues and organs in a lab environment.  Aside from being an inexpensive process, the ability to 3D print the organs could be a breakthrough for those who would otherwise wait for  an organ donor.   

In the past, researchers have been able to use nucleic acids (including DNA) to assemble objects, however most of them were nano-sized and extremely difficult to work with.  To that end, the team was able to find another method for advancing their research using a colloidal gel that is capable of being extruded out of a 3D printer similar to PLA or ABS plastic on a MakerBot Replicator 2.

“By using 2.3 μm polystyrene microparticles functionalized with an equivalent DNA density, the DNA price could potentially be reduced to a more reasonable $60 per liter,” wrote researcher Andrew Ellington in the team's research paper.  

“This price difference will likely be a critical determination for applications of DNA as an adhesive for the production of human scale objects.”

“To this end, we have developed methods to assemble DNA-functionalized microparticles into a colloidal gel, and to extrude this gel with a 3D printer at centimeter size scales.”

Through developing the DNA-coated nanoparticles (which are made of either polystyrene or polyacrylamide), which are bound by the DNA to create the gel-like material capable of being extruded through a 3D printer nozzle, the research by Ellington and his team has been able to help advance what was previously limited due to high costs, limited materials and lack of flexibility.

“Unlike conventional 3D printed objects, the extruded materials have internal, microscale properties that are programmed by the microparticles and their nanoscale DNA interactions,” said Ellington.  “By controlling the assembly of materials from the molecular to the micron to the macroscale, one of the longstanding challenges for self-assembling materials has been realized.”

Because the materials are easy to see and be manipulated compared to materials that have been worked with in the past, the team has been able to prove that the DNA adhesive is capable of harvesting human cells.  When combined with 3D printing, the research places humans one step closer to being able to print custom tissues and organs specific to one’s own DNA.

Similar to what we’ve seen in various efforts to create 4D self-assembling printed structures, the team hopes to continue their research and focus on controlling the self-assembly process for tissue engineering.

“Future work will focus on controlling the self-assembly process using the properties of both DNA hybridization and DNA circuitry in order to test the effects of different self-assembly processes,” Ellington added.  

“It will be determined how microscale structure affects cells seeded within it. The ability to control the macroscale shape, the microscale topology by DNA computation-mediated self-assembly, and the ability to choose the chemistry of the “dumb” substrate material is a unique combination of features for tissue engineering.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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