The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Self-growing bricks, self-healing building materials from bacteria may be the future of construction industry

Particles of sand are held together by living cells.
Particles of sand are held together by living cells. (University of Colorado at Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science)
Placeholder while article actions load

A hurricane strafes an office building, which then grows back its battered roof. Science fiction? Not exactly. Biologists are working to come up with ways to grow building materials with bacteria — and their innovations could one day change the way we interact with our built environment.

The idea of self-growing bricks and self-healing building materials isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Wil Srubar, an assistant professor of architectural engineering and materials science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, leads a laboratory that already has made strides toward doing that.

In his most recent paper, he and colleagues detail how they used Synechococcus, a type of cyanobacteria that flourishes in oceans, to create a living building material that regrew exponentially when it was split into pieces.

“Instead of creating one brick at a time, we harnessed the exponential growth of bacteria to grow many bricks at once,” Srubar writes in The Conversation.

The idea of living materials is intriguing to those looking for materials that have less impact on the environment. Cement, for example, is used to make the world’s most-used construction material, concrete — and the cement production industry accounts for about 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions every year. But bricks made of living materials could potentially sequester carbon instead, helping mitigate global warming.

Some of Srubar’s inventions seem out there (E. coli that makes limestone crystals, for example). But if researchers are able to prove that these materials can be cost-effective and produced in bulk, they might be able to gain a foothold.

“Researchers have only scratched the surface of the potential of engineered living materials,” Srubar writes.

To find out what they’ve already accomplished — and to learn some of the challenges bacteria-fueled building materials might face — go to bit.ly/bacteriabuilding.

Deadly superbugs pose greater risk than previously estimated

Bacteria from ocean floor could be influencing Arctic weather

How microbes in the soil affect our health and food

Loading...