"Biological" apartment to be a testbed for living materials and health
The microbes we're exposed to in the home by picking up a kitchen sponge, sitting on the toilet seat or cleaning the dog food bowl can all help shape the microbial communities living on and in our bodies, which research is increasingly linking to various health outcomes. A new "biological" apartment under construction in the UK will provide scientists with a means of exploring this relationship, along with the overarching aim of ushering in a generation of more sustainable buildings that can be constructed with living materials.
Called The Ome, the experimental biological apartment will be constructed on campus at Newcastle University, as part of a joint venture with the Northumbria University, with researchers hoping it can act as a beacon for more sustainable building practices. That means lowering the carbon footprint of our construction methods, but also creating biological environments that benefit long-term human health.
To that end, the self-contained apartment is designed so that interior and exterior wall panels can be swapped in and out to test different material samples, which will be grown from microbes. Research in this area is in its early stages, but scientists are making progress in engineering bacteria that produces minerals and polymers, such as a 2019 study where E. coli was engineered to create limestone particles, for example.
The Ome apartment will sit above a laboratory where researchers will investigate these types of technologies before testing them out upstairs. They'll also develop processes for converting toilet, food and other waste into fuel and electricity. Meanwhile, the team will study the microbial life in the apartment to understand how its different materials and ventilations systems impact the bacterial community living inside, and explore both the harmful and positive outcomes of these changes on human health.
“There is nothing quite like the OME anywhere in the world,” says Newcastle University Professor Martyn Dade-Robertson. “The building will create a space to develop technologies which are well beyond the state-of-the-art."
The Ome and its laboratory form part of a larger £8m (US$11m) complex at Newcastle University called the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE), which centers on the development of biotechnology and sustainable "living buildings." Construction is now underway on the biological apartment, and is slated for completion in the local springtime of 2021.
Source: Newcastle University