Recent work by Assistant Professor Alshakim and colleagues was published on July 6 in the Science & Technology section of The Economist (“Print me a brewery”), as well as in Geekwire and Digital Trends.
Yeast and other microbial species have long been used in a variety of industrial applications, ranging from alcohol fermentation to pharmaceutical and protein production. Fermentation is typically performed as a batch process, wherein the cells and the necessary metabolites are all introduced into a stirred reactor. Professor Nelson and his research team (Dr. Abhijit Saha, Trevor Johnston, and Ryan Shafranek) developed a process to 3D print yeast cells immobilized within a hydrogel lattice, which could be used for fermentation processes. The advantage of this approach is that these yeast-immobilized 3D printed lattices can potentially reduce reactor downtime, minimize product inhibition, and reduce the total footprint of the reactor. The yeast cells are incorporated into the hydrogel under mild conditions while maintaining the viability and metabolic activity of the embedded cells. The Nelson group has shown that these 3D-printed bioreactors are capable of fermenting solutions of glucose into ethanol, continuously, for upwards of three months.
Future work in this area by the Nelson group will include exploring the lifetimes of the bioreactor devices, while also expanding the portfolio of compounds that the reactors can produce, and the species of microbes they can maintain. Eventually, the group would like to implement these printed reactors in continuous fermentation reactors to produce high-value chemical targets.