Kombucha – the trendy fermented drink beloved by health freaks and hipsters alike – has inspired researchers at the US Army Research Lab to grow ‘living materials’ that can be manufactured to carry out a range of tasks such as sniffing out pollutants or purifying water.


Engineers from MIT and Imperial College London made the materials using a SCOBY, or 'symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast', more commonly used as a mother culture for making fermented kombucha tea, to produce cellulose embedded with enzymes that can perform a variety of different functions.

The team made the culture, dubbed Syn-SCOBY, by combing a strain of laboratory yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae with a type of bacteria called Komagataeibacter they had isolated from a kombucha mother. The bacteria in the culture produced large-scale quantities of tough cellulose that served as a scaffold to house the yeast and any enzymes produced by the yeast.

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As they used a laboratory strain of yeast, they were able to engineer the cells to do any of the things that lab yeast can do, such as producing enzymes that glow in the dark, or sensing pollutants or pathogens in the environment.

“We foresee a future where diverse materials could be grown at home or in local production facilities, using biology rather than resource-intensive centralized manufacturing," said associate professor Timothy Lu, of MIT’s of electrical engineering and computer science department.


The team are now looking into using Syn-SCOBY for biomedical or food applications such as engineering the yeast cells to produce antimicrobials or proteins that could be eaten by humans.

Reader Q&A:  If the human race was wiped out, which species would dominate?

Asked by: Paul Farnham-Smith, Folkestone

Humans have certainly had a profound effect on their environment, but our current claim to dominance is based on criteria that we have chosen ourselves. Ants outnumber us, trees outlive us, fungi outweigh us.

Bacteria win on all of these counts at once. They existed four billion years before us, and created the oxygen in the atmosphere. Collectively, bacteria outnumber us a thousand, billion, billion to one, and their total mass exceeds the combined mass of all animals.

They have colonised the entire planet, from the stratosphere to the deepest ocean, and despite all our technology, antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to kill hundreds of thousands of us every year. When humans are gone, other species may take our place, but bacteria will continue to dominate the planet.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.