A Zoo Where The Cages Are Protein And The Animals Are Bacteria

Because Petri dishes are so 20th-century: University of Texas scientists have created microscopic habitats for bacteria using layers of protein and a high-precision laser. They mimic the natural environments found in human organs.

What's the Latest Development?

Scientists at the University of Texas are creating a new kind of microscopic cage in which to put disease-causing bacteria for observation and study. They do it by printing layers of two-dimensional protein shapes on top of the gelatin where the bacteria reside. As the layers stack up, they create a 3D-printed structure that confines the organisms within it. The laser used to build the cage is extremely precise, says team member Jason Shear: "Think about the thickness of a hair on your head, and take 1 percent of that, and then take about a quarter of that." Details appeared this week in an issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What's the Big Idea?

With this process, the team can create cages of different densities for different types of bacteria, essentially mimicking the conditions found in the human body...something a mere Petri dish can't do. One experiment currently being conducted involves recreating an environment, found only in cystic fibrosis patients, in which one type of bacteria appears to confer antibiotic resistance to another. Using this technology, scientists can simulate and examine how infections -- "where there typically aren't just one but multiple species of bacteria interacting with each other" -- work in the body.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

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