World's first 'living tattoo' could be a wearable device in the future

Scientists Develop 3D Printed'Living Tattoo

Since the cells were too weak, they easily ruptured. Different cell patterns can be used to make these devices responsive to environmental changes, from chemicals, pollutants, or pH shifts to more common-day concerns such as temperature.

For MIT's team, one challenge was finding a type of cell strong enough to handle the stresses of 3D printing. "We can also print relatively large-scale structures, measuring several centimetres", Zhao added.

Authors of the study include Xinyue Liu, Hyunwoo Yuk, Shaoting Lin, German Alberto Parada, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eléonore Tham, Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, Timothy K. Lu and Xuanhe Zhao.

Rather than mammalian cells, the team made a decision to use bacteria, which have thicker cell walls, capable of surviving being squeezed through a printer niozzle, and are more compatible with hydrogels. The team found that a hydrogel based on pluronic acid was the best home for their bacteria while keeping an ideal consistency for 3D printing. "It's like squeezing out toothpaste". The bacteria is also compatible with most hydrogels-gel-like materials that are made from a mix of mostly water and a polymer.

Electronic tattoos and smart ink technologies are showing exciting potential for reframing how we think of wearable sensor devices. The researchers then came up with a recipe for their 3-D ink, using a combination of bacteria, hydrogel, and nutrients to sustain the cells and maintain their functionality. To demonstrate the technique, the team printed a pattern of hydrogel with cells in the shape of a tree on an elastomer layer.

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After printing, they solidified, or cured, the patch by exposing it to UV radiation.

Developed by MIT engineers, the tattoo was "printed" layer-by-layer on a patch before being adhered to the skin. When the patch was tested on a human hand that had been applied with different target chemicals the bacteria successfully illuminated its branches when sensing the corresponding chemical.

Here's how it works: First the bacterial cells are programmed to respond to different compounds. Complex structures could be created that contain many different types of engineered cells that communicate with each other in the same way as transistors on a microchip. The receiving bacteria only lit up when they overlapped and receive "input" from the signalling bacteria in the lower layer.

The ultimate outcomes for the technology are incredibly futuristic, with the team suggesting the technique could conceivably lead to the development of a kind of "living computer". MIT scientists also want to expand the living tattoo's uses in a direction similar to that developed at ETH Zurich, manufacturing patches that can produce compounds such as glucose and releasing them in the bloodstream over time. "As long as the fabrication method and approach are viable, applications such as implants and ingestibles should be possible".

This research was supported, in part, by the Office of Naval Research, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.

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