Self Healing with Synthetic Biology

Today, I wanted to provide some context to spark a discussion on using living organisms as supplements in structures to make them self healing. I saw a piece on self-healing concrete that was harnessing calcium carbonate precipitating bacteria. This could have tremendous applications for repairing roadways and buildings, among other things.

self healing concrete

It led me to start thinking about how we can perhaps have other similar applications that could harness the combined powers of 3D printing and synthetic biology in order to make structures that could heal themselves. It also raised the questions about the ethics associated with developing such structures and the issues they raise.

Talking to two other MD-PhD students, Jing Luan and Jon Lang, over lunch generated a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you. One was about the use of coral implants to heal bone. This is already in the works! There was talk of introducing organisms that would start growing when exposed to air and could be visualized to highlight micro-cracks in places where structural integrity is important. How can we use similar techniques for diagnostics in humans?

These thoughts raise some interesting talking points: 1) How would the living organisms sustain themselves within these non-living structure? 2) Could they grow out of control? 3) What organisms are appropriate for such applications – what are the ethical dilemmas of using higher organisms, such as jellyfish which are known to have plasticity, in such work? How will the increased proliferation of such organisms impact the balance of our surrounding ecosystem?

There are many other issues surrounding these theories of self-healing and we’d love to hear from you!