Science had a number of interesing articles in the Dec 24th issue, but one in particular – Toward a Systems Approach to Understanding Plant Cell Walls (full pdf) stood out.
I’m interested in utilizing bacteria to replace other processes, and one relatively simple example is using bacteria that produce cellulose and other polysaccharides to make paper-like sheets or possibly wood or ceramic-like structural material.
Firstly, it illustrates that the cell wall is a pretty complex place, with four or five major polysaccharides operating in concert to make the wall. Additionally, extensive regulatory control is necessary to allow the cell to expand. This suggests to me that it may not be simple to use bacteria to create load-bearing structural materials.
However, paper is already put through a good deal of processing to simplify its structure, so it seems possible that bacteria could be used for this purpose. Evidently a number of bacteria, including e.coli, generate cellulose as an adhesion mechanism.
Given my utter lack of lab experience, for the moment it seems like it could be possible to culture large amounts of bacteria in a bioreactor and then deposit them in a sheet on a surface that would trigger adhesion. Possibly they would have to be bred to overproduce cellulose, but the general approach should be straightforward. Ideally, the inputs and outputs of this process would require substantially less net energy than raising trees for 20 years and then chopping them down.
One thing I need to constantly be on the lookout for, as I begin lab work, is ways to simplify the cultivation techniques. Eventually it should be possible to have a clay pot bioreactor tended by hand or driven by a small motor, or something to that effect. The only way biologically based artifacts are going to make a difference to the worlds poor is if they can participate in the production process.