The bacteria that could make you grow concrete in your mouth

Illustration for article titled The bacteria that could make you grow concrete in your mouth

A group of UK students have engineered a new bacteria they call BacillaFilla. It swarms into concrete cracks, then secretes a gluey mixture that hardens into concrete filler. But what if this bacteria escaped into the wild and started reproducing?

Advertisement

Above, you can see three photos: On the far left is a concrete crack, and in the next two images (of increasing magnification) you can see the BacillaFilla at work filling in the crack. It's producing a mixture of calcium carbonate and a "bacterial glue" that combine with bacterial cells to fill in the crack snugly.

Students at Newcastle University in the UK created the BacillaFilla for the annual synthetic biology contest iGem, where all entries are required to have safety features. The BacillaFilla are designed with a "kill switch," which prevents them from reproducing outside the lab. They are also designed to extrude their concrete filler only when they are in contact with concrete.

Illustration for article titled The bacteria that could make you grow concrete in your mouth

BacillaFilla is the kind of biotechnology crossed with materials science that we'll see a lot of in the future. The researchers point out that patching concrete cracks with bacteria is far less environmentally harmful than whipping up a vat of cement. Naturally green, BacillaFilla is an industrial material of the future.

But what happens when that future arrives, and workers accidentally inhale some of that BacillaFilla? Maybe it lands on their teeth, whose calcium content is close enough to being like concrete that suddenly you've got workers with a mouthful of concrete. Or maybe you'll start to see walls and bridges growing tumors: Places where the BacillaFilla didn't stop growing after the cracks were filled in.

[via iGEM Team Newcastle and Newcastle University]

Advertisement

DISCUSSION

MrGOH
Mr. GOH!

When I was five or six my house had an inoperable tumor and had to be euthanized. I mean, it was really sick; the windows started crusting over, it had shed all of its shingles and failed to regrow new ones and its central AC lung just couldn't push air through its pulmonary vents without coughing something fierce.

So we arranged to have some of the nicer biofurniture excised so we could graft it as a full transplant in our new home (it takes a long time for a sofa to develop nice, comfortable calluses - although I think Mom and Dad also wanted to make sure the new place felt like home for us kids).

We picked out a nice replacement that had just been budded the previous season. This one had more bedrooms as well as improved detriphages to clean up after our growing family. We submitted our blood samples to the new house so the security phages wouldn't mistake us for intruders by accident if the opticules identified a threat and the central decision node set the house on lockdown. All in all, it was nice to be in a nice, comfy, homeostatic housegrowth.

We did make a final visit to the old house to put it down. I still remember the command pustule and its shutdown pheromones. Dad assured us that the pheromones didn't work on humans, unless they were very naughty. Mom and Dad said the old place wouldn't feel a thing; I just remember hearing a soft sighing sound escape the vents as the blinds lowered a final time and the light nodules dimmed. I was young enough that I thought the corpse of our old house would remain there forever with our memories.

I went back to the old lot recently. It's been rezoned a couple of times since my childhood, I think, though all that stands there now is one of those new and gaudy glasshouses grown, or, more appropriately, built by designer nanophages that eat dirt and shit carbon crystal matrices to order. It's all sharp angles and symmetries, like some sort of Bauhaus nightmare. But I suppose you just can't stop progress...