Scientists have long used cellulose for various purposes including the production of cardboard and paper. A variation of this organic compound extracted from harmless bacteria has even been transformed into components for leather substitutes and cosmetic products.
This versatility in the uses of the material has inspired British researchers to develop a new method of producing cellulose using an engineered bacterial strain typically found in fermented herbal tea known as kombucha.
Tea makers produce kombucha by fermenting tea leaves through the use of a symbiotic colony consisting of bacteria and yeast. This results in a green or black tea beverage that is said to be beneficial to human health. Fans of kombucha drinks claim that it can treat various illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and even AIDS.
In a study featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michael Florea and his colleagues at Imperial College London describe how they can use engineered cells known as K. rhaeticus to help trigger the production of a customized form of cellulose.
The base component of the cells was derived from bacteria commonly found in kombucha. It was developed as part of the research team's project that was entered in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in 2014.
According to Florea, the technology they have created has advanced significantly since they joined the competition two years ago. What makes it very promising is that they were able to show how bacterial cellulose can be engineered to produce materials in different sizes, shapes and patterns.
They can also combine cellulose with biomolecules and other forms of proteins, something that has not been done by scientists before.
Florea and his team believe that this new technology can be used in different applications such as in the development of better filters for water. The cellulose could be weaved with proteins to make it bind more easily to water contaminants, effectively removing them from drinking supplies. The material can also be fine-tuned to be particularly effective against certain forms of contaminants.
The bacterial cellulose could also be used to create fabrics capable of detecting chemicals and biological toxins. The resulting material would be able to change its color whenever it is exposed to such molecules.
Using Bacterial Cellulose In Space
One interesting application for the new technology is in the development of materials for space travel.
Since the method allows for the production of cellulose using only a small amount of bacteria from kombucha tea, scientists are now considering employing it during space missions. Astronauts can use it to create building components once they arrive at a particular destination, such as on Mars, instead of having to transport the materials along with them.