Silicone Sponge Captures Bacteria for Scientific Use

Researchers have had a hard time capturing microbials for study, and the silicone sponge—embedded in a chip—can help.

Elizabeth Montalbano

December 19, 2022

3 Min Read
silicone bacteria sponge
The sponge-like structure of a chip developed by researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) that can collected bacteria (shown in gray) was produced with salt crystals. In the lab, it is colonized by the red microorganisms within a few days.Image courtesy of Institute for Biological Interfaces-1, KIT

Researchers have made a breakthrough in the study of bacteria for scientific use with the development of a sponge that can suck up local microorganisms and preserve them for future study.

A team from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) used what they said should be a rather obvious material—a porous, formable silicone—to create the sponge, which is embedded in a chip. The result is a device that absorbs microorganisms in its surroundings so scientists can apply them to further research, they said.

“It is quite surprising that nobody ever thought of using medical silicone for the settlement of bacteria,” noted Christof Niemeyer, professor for chemical biology at KIT’s Institute for Biological Interfaces, in a press statement, pointing out the advantages to using such a material for this purpose.

The same polymer, which is well known for its use in breast implants, can be modified easily, tends to have longevity, and is inexpensive. Though it's not unfamiliar to material scientists, researchers discovered its significant capability for use to capture bacteria quite by accident, Niemeyer said.

Researchers did have to tweak the medical version of the silicone so it could be habitable for microorganisms, however. They added table salt to the polymer, which was dissolved again afterwards but formed small holes connected by small passageways. This is what gave the material the sponge-like structure researchers were seeking, they said.

When it takes a porous structure, "the material can take up microorganisms from the environment, no matter how moist or dry it is," Niemeyer explained in a press statement.

They then embedded the sponge in a chip composed of the same silicone as the sponge, except in its homogeneous form, they said.

"There is every indication that this chip is highly suited for the systematic investigation of microbial dark matter," Niemeyer said. "It opens up interesting options for the cultivation of microorganisms that could not be cultivated so far.”

Benefit of Bacteria Study

Microbials and their variety of survival strategies could play a key role in informing modern research biotechnology, researchers said. However, because of the sheer number of microorganisms and some of the remote places they exist, it's been difficult for scientists to study them to their full potential because, as Niemeyer previously stated, they haven't been able to cultivate them.

Researchers discovered through a series of experiments that the silicone sponge can capture a range of microorganisms in its holes. For example, they tested the sponge in the dry air of a poultry farm, where the device picked up the Actinobacteriota species—which is important for the production of antibiotics as well as has application to produce certain cancer treatments. “With the sponge, we can catch new bacteria that might benefit biomedicine,” Niemeyer said.

Researchers also submerged the sponge in a pool where pike perch are farmed, where it collected the Candidate phyla radiation group of bacteria, which account for about 70 percent of microbial dark matter, researchers noted. However, "they have not been cultivable so far,” noted Professor Anne-Kristin Kaster, another one of the KIT researchers on the project, signifying a breakthrough use of the sponge.

The team also proved that the sponge can enrich selected bacteria, if they prepare it accordingly. For instance, they used the pesticide glyphosate to "lure" microorganisms that process it into the sponge, researchers said. And once in contact with soil samples, the porous material was colonized by microbes within a few days.

Researchers published a paper on their work in the journal ACS – Applied Material and Interfaces. They also have filed a patent for their technology for further research and development as well as scientific application and use.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano

Elizabeth Montalbano has been a professional journalist covering the telecommunications, technology and business sectors since 1998. Prior to her work at Design News, she has previously written news, features and opinion articles for Phone+, CRN (now ChannelWeb), the IDG News Service, Informationweek and CNNMoney, among other publications. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she also has lived and worked in Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco and New York City. She currently resides in Lagos, Portugal. Montalbano has a bachelor's degree in English/Communications from De Sales University and a master's degree from Arizona State University in creative writing.

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