Microbial biotechnologies enabling living construction

© Angela Sherry

The Microbiology Society is undertaking a project entitled A Sustainable Future as part of our 75th Anniversary, which aims to highlight the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to our members and empower them to use their research to evidence and impact the goals. Earlier this year, we put a call out to our members to submit case studies in the following three areas: antimicrobial resistance, soil health and the circular economy.

This case study is written by Dr Angela Sherry, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Fellow in the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment, Department of Applied Sciences, Northumbria University, UK. She is also a member of the Microbiology Society. It focuses on the circular economy; an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose), in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

What are the needs that this research initiative addresses?

Urbanisation is increasing across the world, concomitant with population growth and other factors such as migration, infrastructure development and government policies1. In 2018, more than half of the world’s population were living in urban areas (55%, 4.2 billion people) compared to only 30% in 1950 (751 million people), with predictions that 68% of the world’s population will be residing in urban areas by 20502. In urban areas, reconsidering the materials we utilise to construct dwellings is of utmost importance to try and minimise deleterious impacts on the environment. Interactions within the built environment are also pertinent given that an average of 60–70% of each day is spent at home and indoors in all countries3. Time at home has significantly increased recently due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with governments forcibly recommending that whole nations stay indoors. Much remains to be discovered regarding the interactions between people, micro-organisms and the built environment.

The Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE) is a multidisciplinary collaboration bringing together architecture and design at Newcastle University with biosciences and biotechnology at Northumbria University. The vision of the HBBE is to rethink and reconsider conventional wisdom surrounding all aspects of the built environment, from molecular scale to whole buildings by using micro-organisms to create transformational biotechnologies. These enabling technologies will help to create a new generation of buildings which are responsive to their environment, grown using engineered living materials capable of metabolising their own wastes, and modulating their microbiomes to benefit human health. Research within the HBBE contributes to addressing many targets within the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), predominantly within goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities), goal 9 (industries, innovation and infrastructure), and goal 12 (responsible consumption and production).   

What findings and solutions were provided by this research initiative?

Ongoing research within the HBBE includes:

  • Determination of the built environment microbiome prior to build, during build and after inhabitation of the home.
  • Computational prediction of the built environment microbiome to develop healthy environments by cultivating or influencing the microbiome through the design of buildings and human interaction. 
  • Interactions and translocation of the microbiome within indoor spaces on natural and synthetic materials.
  • Public perceptions of the built environment microbiome in relation to human health and well-being, with aspects related to the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Guided growth and fabrication of living materials, including fungi, fungal mycelium, bacterial celluloses, and microbially-induced calcite, incorporating digital modelling and robotic systems. 
  • Biomineralisation, including microbial-induced calcite precipitation (MICP), to facilitate the self-healing of construction materials and learning from biomineralisation processes within nature e.g. lithifying microbial mats.
  • Design, development and integration of microbial bioreactors into homes, to process wastes in situ and/or generate energy or other useful products. Including identifying novel enzymes and incorporating molecular and synthetic biology to enhance the breakdown of more recalcitrant compounds e.g hydrocarbons, plastics.   
  • Nature-inspired biodesign, mixing textile fabrication processes with microbiology to produce materials that can interact with and respond to their surrounding environments.

How can this research initiative support the transition to a more sustainable future?

In light of Covid-19, there is an urgent requirement to gain an enhanced understanding of the human-microbial interactions within the built indoor environment, to ensure the provision of resilient infrastructure that will be conducive to human health going forward. Furthermore, understanding the effects of indoor microbiomes on human health and well-being will help us to support a healthier, more resilient society.

Greater than 4 billion tonnes of cement are produced each year, which accounts for approximately 8% of global CO2 emissions4. Research within the HBBE aims to reduce global emissions from the conventional manufacture of construction materials such as concrete, by fabricating biotechnological alternatives to provide more sustainable infrastructure. The use of novel or transformed, cost-effective construction materials with properties on par with, or exceeding, existing materials will contribute to the building of more sustainable and resilient homes.

Implementing microbial bioreactors into homes will facilitate a reduction in household waste streams, potentially through novel biodegradation pathways.

References

1Alirol E, Getaz L, Stoll B, Chappuis F, Loutan L. (2011). Urbanisation and infectious diseases in a globalised world. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 11 (2), 131-141.

2United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision (ST/ESA/SER.A/420). New York: United Nations.

3Khajehzadeh I, B Vale. (2017). How New Zealanders distribute their daily time between home indoors, home outdoors and out of home, Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 12:1, 17-31.

4Lehne J, Preston F. (2018). Making Concrete Change: Innovation in low-carbon cement and concrete. Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Energy, Environment and Resources Department, Chatham House Report.


Angela Sherry
© Angela Sherry
About the Author

Dr Angela Sherry is Vice Chancellor’s Senior Fellow in the Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment, Department of Applied Sciences, Northumbria University. More information about her work is available here .

Find out more about members and partners of the HBBE

Funding:

Research England - Expanding Excellence in England (E3) Fund. Awarded to Newcastle University and Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K. - Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment.