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Living materials with programmable functionalities grown from engineered microbial co-cultures


Biological systems assemble living materials that are autonomously patterned, can self-repair and can sense and respond to their environment. The field of engineered living materials aims to create novel materials with properties similar to those of natural biomaterials using genetically engineered organisms. Here, we describe an approach to fabricating functional bacterial cellulose-based living materials using a stable co-culture of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast and bacterial cellulose-producing Komagataeibacter rhaeticus bacteria. Yeast strains can be engineered to secrete enzymes into bacterial cellulose, generating autonomously grown catalytic materials and enabling DNA-encoded modification of bacterial cellulose bulk properties. Alternatively, engineered yeast can be incorporated within the growing cellulose matrix, creating living materials that can sense and respond to chemical and optical stimuli. This symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast is a flexible platform for the production of bacterial cellulose-based engineered living materials with potential applications in biosensing and biocatalysis.

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Fig. 1: Generating Syn-SCOBY co-cultures with S. cerevisiae and K. rhaeticus.
Fig. 2: Syn-SCOBYs can produce enzyme-functionalized BC materials.
Fig. 3: Modifying BC physical material properties.
Fig. 4: Syn-SCOBY materials can sense and respond.
Fig. 5: Optical patterning of enzymatically functionalized BC materials.

Data availability

All produced data that support the main figures of this study are included in this published article. Data points for the mechanical and rheological tests are provided as Source data files. Additional data are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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We thank G. Pothoulakis, C. Bricio-Garberi, B. E. Wolfe and E. Landis for advice and discussions, J. van der Hilst for contributions to co-culture methods and B. An for assisting with photo taking. Work at Imperial College London was funded by UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) awards EP/M002306/1 and EP/N026489/1 and an Imperial College London President’s Scholarship to C.G. W.O. was supported by a research fellowship (OT 577/1-1) from the German Research Foundation (DFG). Work at MIT was funded by Army Research Office award W911NF-11-1-0281 and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies award W911NF-13-D-0001, T.O. 4. T.C.T. was supported by the MIT J-WAFS Fellowship. Work across both institutions was funded by the MIT-MISTI MIT-Imperial College London Seed Fund.

Author information




C.G., T.-C.T. and T.E. conceived and designed the experiments. C.G., T.-C.T. and W.O. performed the Syn-SCOBY co-culture characterization experiments. C.G. performed the BC functionalization and biosensor experiments. T.-C.T. performed yeast incorporation, BC material property modification and optical-patterning experiments. B.A.D. generated yeast strains for optical patterning. W.M.S. generated yeast biosensor strains and genetic tools. G.L.S. performed the eSEM experiments. T.K.L. and T.E. supervised the project and C.G., T.-C.T., W.O. and T.E. wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Timothy K. Lu or Tom Ellis.

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C.G., T.-C.T., W.O., T.K.L. and T.E. are co-inventors on patent applications (International Patent Application no. PCT/US2020/047330) filed by MIT and Imperial College London relating to all the work covered in this article.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–32, Tables 1–4, text and references.

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Gilbert, C., Tang, TC., Ott, W. et al. Living materials with programmable functionalities grown from engineered microbial co-cultures. Nat. Mater. 20, 691–700 (2021).

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