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Four pieces of a material made of brown polymer and white calcium carbonate, in various patterns.

Bacteria that colonized 3D-printed lattices (brown) helped to enrich them with minerals (white) in complex patterns. Credit: A. Xin et al./Adv. Mater.

Materials science

Microbial makers help humans to build tough stuff

Researchers enlist bacteria to make a synthetic composite material that is more damage-resistant than its natural counterparts.

A new composite material that unites hard mineral, resilient plastic and bacteria turns out to be tougher than bone.

Natural composites combine stiff minerals and soft polymers to achieve ultrahigh strength and toughness. For example, a layer of the extremely durable composite nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, helps seashells to resist breakage. These materials’ toughness requires a high proportion of mineral to be distributed in an orderly fashion — a combination that researchers have found difficult to duplicate.

Qiming Wang at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and his colleagues sought the assistance of Sporosarcina pasteurii bacteria to tackle this challenge. The researchers first allowed the bacteria to colonize the surface of a plastic lattice, then fed them a nutrient broth that contained a calcium compound and urea. The microbes secreted an enzyme that decomposed the urea, producing carbonate ions that triggered the deposition of calcium carbonate around the bacteria. This mineral accumulated over ten days, until it filled the lattice’s gaps.

The resulting composite could absorb almost ten times as much energy as nacre before breaking.

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Smoke from Australian fires turned up the heat in the southern sky

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