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Scientists Are Pitting Bacteria Against Each Other in 3D-Printed Cages

The most important zoos of the future might not house endangered lions or tigers. Instead, they could hold disease-causing bacteria.

Scientists at the University of Texas have begun 3D printing microscopic habitats to study bacterial communities. They say the tiny "cages" are better at reproducing the microbial environments of the human lungs and gut than traditional petri dishes.

Using a high-precision laser and a protein, the researchers continually print two-dimensional images onto a layer of gelatin where bacteria are being cultivated. As they add more protein layers, the 2D images slowly build up, creating an impenetrable "cage" that the bacteria are confined in. The technology was described in Monday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We do another layer, and another, and so on, building up," said Jason Shear, one of the researchers working on the project. "It's very simple. We're basically making pictures and stacking them up into 3-D structures, but with incredible control. Think about the thickness of a hair on your head, and take 1 percent of that, and then take about a quarter of that. That's about the size of our laser when it's brought to its smallest point."

The process allows the researchers to control which bacteria live within any one cage. They're also able to control densities, which let them set up conditions that are nearly identical to the colonies that exist within humans.

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