Speaking at the 2015 TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, MIT professor Neri Oxman has displayed what is claimed to be the world’s first 3D-printed photosynthetic wearable prototype embedded with living matter. Dubbed "Mushtari," the wearable is constructed from 58 meters (190 ft) of 3D-printed tubes coiled into a mass that emulates the construction of the human gastrointestinal tract. Filled with living bacteria designed to fluoresce and produce sugars or bio-fuel when exposed to light, Mushtari is a vision of a possible future where symbiotic human/microorganism relationships may help us explore other worlds in space.
Part of a range of similar wearables that make up Professor Oxman's series entitled "Wanderers: An Astrobiological Exploration," Mushtari (meaning huge in Arabic, and a reference to the planet Jupiter) has been produced using a Stratasys Objet500 Connex3 3D production system with triple-jetting to create a large fluid network whose inner channel diameters range from 1 mm to 25 mm and vary from opaque to clear. The clear sections are designed to promote photosynthesis in the cyanobacteria the wearable is designed to contain.
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"This (3D printing) enabled varying levels of transparency and translucency to be designed into surface areas where photosynthesis was desired,” said Professor Oxman, speaking at the 2015 TED conference in Vancouver, Canada. "Channels and pockets were implemented to enhance the flow and functionality of the cells – such mechanical and optical property gradation can only be achieved using multi-material 3D printing with high spatial resolution for manufacturing."
Providing substance to the possibility of traveling to other worlds, all of the wearables in Oxman’s "Wanderers" series are intended to be self-sustaining, contained elements that support life – rather like living spacesuits – on planets that do not have an atmosphere like the Earth's. Mushtari, in this case, was conceived as an organ system used to ingest biomass, absorb nutrients, and then eject waste products. As such, the translucent 3D-printed channels are envisioned to encourage the movement of cyanobacteria through the system and convert sunlight to sucrose for the consumption of the human attached to the wearable.
"This is the first time that 3D printing technology has been used to produce a photosynthetic wearable piece with hollow internal channels designed to house microorganisms," said Professor Oxman. "Inspired by the human gastrointestinal tract, Mushtari hosts synthetic microorganisms – a co-culture of photosynthetic cyanobacteria and E. coli bacteria – that can fluoresce bright colors in darkness and produce sugar or biofuels when exposed to the sun. Such functions will in the near future augment the wearer by scanning our skins, repairing damaged tissue and sustaining our bodies, an experiment that has never been attempted before."
Synthetic technology that emulates human organs is fast becoming a viable and largely preferable alternative for research and experimentation, without the need to source, store, and dispose of real human tissue.
Similarly, wearables such as Mushtari may also represent a method to incorporate and contain living organisms in close proximity to the skin in a symbiotic relationship that may be ideal for the rigors of long space voyages and the surfaces of hostile planets. A living, self-sustaining cocoon that recycles waste and provides energy from an external source would be far preferable to a spacesuit that simply provides support based on the amount of consumables you can conceivably carry.
Given the complexity of printing channels of varying thickness and transparency, Stratasys had to develop a new bespoke way to produce Mushtari. This, according to the creative director of art fashion design at Stratasys, Naomi Kaempfer, is one of the reasons that this particular element is so innovative:
"We have a fertile research collaboration with Professor Neri Oxman, one that has great reciprocal benefits as we push each other to the edges of expression and technological capability," said Kaempfer. "3D printing Mushtari is a wonderful example of how far this collaboration can bring us. Our R&D team went beyond the boundaries of our existing technology, formulating a dedicated improved support structure to allow a smooth, effective process in support of Professor Oxman’s vision."
As another part of "The Sixth Element" design collection of the "Wanderers" series in an ongoing collaboration between Stratasys and Oxman, members of the Mediated Matter research group, the Laboratory of Professor Pamela Silver at Harvard Medical School, and the graphic design company, Deskriptiv, Mushtari is by far the most ambitious and technically difficult wearable so far produced. This effort, however, has resulted in a new system that potentially begins to blur the line between synthetic and biological structures and points toward a much more biologically-oriented technological future of wearable devices.
"In the end, it is clear that the incorporation of synthetic biology in 3D-printed products for wearable microbiomes will enable the transition from designs that are inspired by nature, to designs made with and by nature, to, possibly designing nature herself," said Professor Oxman.
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