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“Living Concrete” Grows and Reproduces — What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means people living there are seasonally concerned about concrete … or the lack of it in vari...

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It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which means people living there are seasonally concerned about concrete … or the lack of it in various parts of road surfaces. All drivers know that potholes don’t fix themselves … but what if they could? Researchers in Boulder, Colorado, have developed a new form of ‘living’ concrete and they claim it can grow and even reproduce. What could possibly go wrong … and who will play the part of Concrete in the movie?

“In this work, we used photosynthetic microorganisms to biomineralize inert sand-gelatin scaffolds to create LBMs (living building materials). These materials are capable of exponential regeneration of the living component in response to physical switches. Thus, from one starting generation of material, multiple regenerations are produced on demand.”

In a paper published this week in the journal Matter, scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder, lay out how they combined Cyanobacteria (photosynthetic blue-green algae) with gelatin (Knox brand!) and sand to make living, greenish Jell-O-like substance which grows on sunlight until the source is cut off. A that point, the jiggly stuff dries out into a material they claim is similar to concrete (which is also made from sand and a binder) and can be used as a building material. That doesn’t sound so bad. What could possibly go wrong?

“It really does look like a Frankenstein material.”

In an interview with the New York Times, UC Boulder engineer and project leader Will Srubar describes the monsterish looks of the strange living concrete, and he hints at what it might be used for by revealing that his project’s main funder is DAPRA, the Defense Department’s agency for developing future stuff. The “Frankenstein material” would allow engineers to take one brick to remote locations, add sunlight and build a fort. While this sounds like something the Coyote might order from Acme to stop the Roadrunner, Srubar insists that these living bricks work (although not yet on that scale) and would also be practical for taking building material into space for building bases and housing on another planet. After all, even in space, there’s always room for Jell-O. (Insert groan here.)

“We’re not pigeonholed into using some particular kind of sand. We could use waste materials like ground glass or recycled concrete.”

While this won’t give us self-filling, living pothole patches, the new living concrete will help the growing sand shortage on Earth due to the amounts being used for conventional concrete. Even with DARPA’s involvement, this living concrete doesn’t sound so bad. What could possibly go wrong?

This isn’t the first time we’ve been exposed to a living, growing, reproducing rock. In 1961, Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four, whose largest member is The Thing, the rock-covered superhero. The Thing is concrete-strong and generally lovable but he has a temper. In 1986, Paul Chadwick created the character Concrete for Dark Horse Comics. Brought to life when aliens placed his brain inside of an artificial stone body, Concrete is strong but more of a rocky one-man support group than a superhero or super-villain. And he can’t reproduce because he has no sex organs.

Even the best developers of superhero comic characters seem to feel that not much could possibly go wrong with living concrete. However, they’ve never encountered something like this Jell-O concrete. What happens if you try to kill it with a sledgehammer? It just breaks into squishy little hard-to-pick-up pieces that ALL start growing into living concrete beings!

Just to be on the safe side, perhaps DARPA should send a crate to Wile E. Coyote and see what he does with it.

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