Bionic 3D-Printed Corals Could Optimize Bioenergy and Help Coral Reefs

This is a scanning electron microscope image of the microalgal colonies in the hybrid living biopolymers.
Credit: University of Cambridge

Researchers from Cambridge University and the University of California San Diego have 3D printed coral-inspired structures that are capable of growing dense populations of microscopic algae. Their results, reported April 9, 2020, in the journal Nature Communications, open the door to new bio-inspired materials and their applications for coral conservation.

In the ocean, corals and algae have an intricate symbiotic relationship. The coral provides a host for the algae, while the algae produce sugars to the coral through photosynthesis. This relationship is responsible for one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth, the coral reef.

“Corals are highly efficient at collecting and using light,” said first author Dr. Daniel Wangpraseurt, a Marie Curie Fellow from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry. “In our lab, we’re looking for methods to copy and mimic these strategies from nature for commercial applications.”

Wangpraseurt and his colleagues 3D printed coral structures and used them as incubators for algae growth. They tested various types of microalgae and found growth rates were 100x higher than in standard liquid growth mediums.

To create the intricate structures of natural corals, the researchers used a rapid 3D bioprinting technique originally developed for the bioprinting of artificial liver cells.

The coral-inspired structures were highly efficient at redistributing light, just like natural corals. Only biocompatible materials were used to fabricate the 3D printed bionic corals.

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