We know that 3-D printers can spit out products from jewelry to digital devices. Then we started hearing about technology that could print out human organs. The concept is proven but the technology remains too expensive for most mortals. Now, a group of hackers at Biocurious has built a device that can print out cells. Its cost? About $150, according to this MIT Review report.
That means you too, if you so desire, can churn out a sheet of E.coli bacteria using a machine built of some custom-built parts and recycled inkjet cartridges and CD-drive components. And, before you panic, remember only a few strains of E.coli are harmful.
The initial model works just in two dimensions, printing out sheets of fluorescent E. coli cells that read “I heart BioCurious.” But, according to the story, project organizer Patrik D’haeseleer’s longer-term plan is:
“… to print plant cells and build photosynthetic structures, although this is a long-term project that will be much harder than squirting E. Coli on a sheet. He imagines applications could include creating energy-producing surfaces on everyday objects. But really, D’haeseleer, mostly wants to print a leaf to see if he can do it.”
It’s projects like this that could bring the cost of big-time bio-printing down and perhaps give birth to a vibrant industry. Fostering a sustainable food supply is one huge problem that bio-printing could help address, as GigaOM’s Katie Fehrenbacher reported Thursday. For example, startup Modern Meadow hopes to use similar technology to print out “synthetic lab-grown meats.” And there’s still more about the possibility of printing food in space.
Of course, any time you put make technology widely and cheaply available, the opportunity for abuse rises. One thing to think about: How many people really should be able to mass produce harmful strains of E.Coli (or other potential pathogens?)
Update: This story was updated at 12:25 p.m. PDT to correct a mis-statement about the printer’s ability to propagate cells. The printer does not produce new cells, it “prints” existing cells from a liquid suspension.