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Biotech United Kingdom

Bacteria Used To Fix Cracked Concrete 177

Posted by samzenpus
from the smear-and-repair dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Researchers at the UK's University of Newcastle have created a new type of bacteria that generates glue to hold together cracks in concrete structures — that means everything from concrete sidewalks to buildings that have been damaged by earthquakes. When the cells have been germinated, they burrow deep into the concrete until they reach the bottom. At this point, the concrete repair process is activated, and the cells split into three types that produce calcium carbonate crystals, act as reinforcing fibers, and produce glue which acts as a binding agent to fill concrete gaps."
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Bacteria Used To Fix Cracked Concrete

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  • Okay. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pushing-robot (1037830) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:36PM (#34257732)

    I think it's officially "the future".

    • Re:Okay. (Score:5, Funny)

      by somaTh (1154199) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:39PM (#34257806) Journal
      Nope, still the present. Well, it was. Now it's the past. Stupid entropy.
      • Re:Okay. (Score:4, Funny)

        by Gilmoure (18428) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @03:57PM (#34259268) Journal

        Wait, when was this?!!!

        • by ArsonSmith (13997)

          This is now.

          I just want to know what happened to then.

          • by TWX (665546)

            Dark Helmet and Sandurz come across an image of themselves viewing the screen. As they react, the screen mimics what they are doing]
            Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at?! When does this happen in the movie?!
            Colonel Sandurz: "Now". You're looking at "now", sir. Everything that happens now [indicates himself and Helmet] is happening "now". [Indicates the screen]
            Dark Helmet: What happened to "then"?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Call me when they can pour this Bacterial pudding into a bullet wound and have it heal up...that's the future I'm waiting for. Then I can finally start my crime-fighting vigilante spree.

      • It could have healed the Man In the Mountain!
      • Re:Okay. (Score:4, Informative)

        by sadness203 (1539377) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @03:00PM (#34258208)
        The problem, with bullet wound is... they are not always clean, you can have some clothes debris, or other dirt. Closing the wound is easy (well, relatively speaking) but cleaning it well enough is another thing.
        • Re:Okay. (Score:4, Informative)

          by locallyunscene (1000523) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @04:27PM (#34259790)
          The main problem with a bullet wound is that it used to be a normal functioning part of the body and not a bullet wound...
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Reziac (43301) *

            I dunno.. under that logic, I've seen a few folks for whom a bullet wound in the brain would be an upgrade....

        • The problem, with bullet wound is...[dirt].

          Another problem with bullet wounds is emergency room doctors who believe the myth of "hydrostatic shock" damage and chop out a core of tissue around the bullet's path (as if it were a linear cancer), rather than treating it properly by cleaning and closing the wound (as if it were any other puncture-and-displacement trauma).

          Yo, Docs! Even if the bullet somehow WAS traveling faster than the speed of sound in flesh (like about mach 4.4) shock waves aren't any big de

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by RapmasterT (787426)

        Call me when they can pour this Bacterial pudding into a bullet wound and have it heal up...that's the future I'm waiting for. Then I can finally start my crime-fighting vigilante spree.

        Or...you could put this pudding IN the bullet, then as soon as you'd got shot, you'd start healing. Joscelyn Elders would finally be vindicated!

      • by Khashishi (775369)

        I think I would feel more comfortable with personally cloned human pudding in a bullet wound in my body than some foreign bacteria. mmm, human pudding...

    • Re:Okay. (Score:5, Informative)

      by camperslo (704715) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:53PM (#34258078)

      An older article with considerably more detail. Not sure if it's the same bacteria.

      http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19386-for-selfhealing-concrete-just-ad [newscientist.com]

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Reziac (43301) *

        The only real problem I can see is in an environment like the SoCal desert, where the soil pH is extremely high, and also very high in calcium salts. Seems to me you'd have to do a test-run to make sure you didn't get a runaway effect in such soils, for applications where cracks in the concrete extend all the way through. Either that, or maybe precede the treatment with an acid wash. I'm sure some such control mechanism can be developed.

        (When we tested the soil on my place, the pH was so high that the teste

    • Re:Okay. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by icebike (68054) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:55PM (#34258118)

      Seems like a giant "Just So" story if you ask me.

      Lots of pre-programed mutations working perfectly in the laboratory to seal cracks of a known nature.

      Activated when the reach the bottom. Bottom? What if there is no bottom? Most cracks in concrete go right thru the slab.

      React to the specific PH of the concrete? If only all concrete were the same. Its been in use for several hundred years, and the formula has been constantly evolving.

      And nothing is said about the strength. If the concrete was broken by whatever means, what are the chances some bio glue could hold it together against the next insult?

      • Re:Okay. (Score:5, Informative)

        by Gotung (571984) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @03:06PM (#34258322)
        Several hundred years? Try several thousand.
      • by rsborg (111459) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @03:21PM (#34258590) Homepage

        React to the specific PH of the concrete? If only all concrete were the same. Its been in use for several hundred years, and the formula has been constantly evolving.

        Remember Monsanto and "roundup ready" seeds? Now imagine a "bio-healing ready" concrete... concrete that is differentiated by a specific compound formula which is standardized for a specific bacteria (of course several grades of the product combo will exist for both quality and usage differences ... which also allow for market segmentation)

        All it will take is some enterprising megacorp with the legal muscle to patent this combo (and defend the patents) and you can effectively raised margin on concrete 10x at least.

        Anything can be de-commoditized if it provides unique value and a big enough megacorp.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by khallow (566160)

          All it will take is some enterprising megacorp with the legal muscle to patent this combo (and defend the patents) and you can effectively raised margin on concrete 10x at least.

          Depends on whether they can get it into building codes or not. If they can't, then the concrete would comparable in cost (else you're not going to get it into the building).

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by PitaBred (632671)

        Maybe this isn't meant as a permanent repair? It would still be a hell of a boon if it worked fast enough that we could use it to temporarily shore up structures until they could be properly repaired.

      • The material is a composite of proteins such as

        Spider silk is a remarkably strong material. Its tensile strength is comparable to that of high-grade steel (1500 MPa),[7][8] and about half as strong as aramid filaments, such as Twaron or Kevlar (3000 MPa).[9] Spider silk is about a fifth of the density of steel; a strand long enough to circle the Earth would weigh less than 500 grams (18 oz).[10] Spider silk [wikipedia.org]

        and the same calcium carbonate crystals as the original concrete, so it's easily conceivable that the

      • by mangu (126918)

        Okay, so there are many parameters to consider, should we give up because of that?

        • by icebike (68054)

          Would you be happier if no one mentioned any of these "parameters"? Would that make successful development more likely? When questions are suppressed or not addressed during the early stages disasters [youtube.com] inevitably happen.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Fizzl (209397)

      Lord help us! This the gray goo!
      Soon it will be fixing cracks we did not anticipate!

    • by Stregano (1285764)
      Now we just have to test it as a normal adhesive. Good Bye Crazy Glue. Hello Weird bacteria glue
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Toze (1668155)
      I immediately thought of Masamune Shirow's Dominion Tank Police [wikipedia.org]. Bacteria that can grow between cracks in concrete = bacteria that will grow over a lattice. Lash together a frame soaked in bacteria-food, seed the base, come back in a couple of weeks.
      Now, where're my sexy android catgirls?
  • by Mishotaki (957104) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:38PM (#34257794)
    How is it gonna stop? when they run out of concrete to fill, when they overpopulate and eat all the concrete "cracks" or when they kill all humans and we can't record the moment it stops because there won't be any humans to observe it?
  • Is the nanobot 'grey goo' earth going to be usurped by the bacteria concrete earth?

    • by maxwell demon (590494) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:44PM (#34257920) Journal

      Well, since grey goo is such an abstract concept, they thought they would rather use something more concrete ...

    • Read teh article. (Score:3, Informative)

      by mattdm (1931)

      The spores germinate only in very alkaline environments — concrete has a quite high pH. The article is vague on details, but notes that "[the bacteria] have a built-in self-destruct gene that prevents them from proliferating away from the concrete target."

      Now, What Could Possibly Go Wrong and all of that, but the bases are nominally covered.

      • by BrotherBeal (1100283) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @04:00PM (#34259336)

        The spores germinate only in very alkaline environments... ...but the bases are nominally covered.

        I see what you did there.

      • by DamonHD (794830)

        And the acids, I guess?

        Rgds

        Damon

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        The spores germinate only in very alkaline environments...

        So what's the limit? The well at my NV place has a pH of eight and the water at my townhouse a pH of nine. Will the city's water system and/or my residential well be plugged with bacterial pseudo-cement, strong as the real stuff? (Note that the well casing has a cement wall - just ideal for them to treat the boundary between it and the dirt as a crack and follow it down.)

        Lots of alkaline soil out there (like around my townhouse). Before adding so

        • by adonoman (624929)
          Concrete usually has a pH in the range of 12 - roughly that of drain cleaner. If you're safe gardening without protective gloves, your soil is less alkaline than concrete.
        • Concrete can have a pH as high as 14 or so... Decent gap between that and rain water.
    • by falldeaf (968657) <falldeaf@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @03:03PM (#34258256) Homepage
      I think that whole nanobot grey goo problem is way overhyped. Biological organisms are much more advanced than our technology and they haven't been able to turn all matter into copies of themselves yet, despite their best efforts.
      • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @04:38PM (#34259954)

        Absolute worst case scenario is a grey goo outbreak being treated basically like a fire (which, when you think about it is the ultimate grey goo machine). There's a limit to how much energy is available for replication, and there's a limit on how efficient you can make your replication (at some level, the replicating nanobots will be literally tearing apart and putting back together materials). Fighting the grey goo only involves tearing about the replicators, not necessarily wasting energy putting the pieces back together into something useful.

        In other words, it should be trivial to design a nanobot that tears apart the self-replicators but doesn't waste energy by making copies of itself. This nanobot would be manufactured a head of time and stored for future use, or manufactured in specialist facilities (even in a mobile truck if necessary) that provide the energy input necessary for their production. As long as your facilities have more energy available than the self-replicators do, you'll win out eventually. And the replicators will only have about as much energy available as a fire can produce.

      • by SoupGuru (723634)
        We are the gray goo.
  • by boristdog (133725) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:46PM (#34257950)

    I can't come in today, my street has a bad cold.

  • And the bacteria knows the difference between concrete and lung tissue how?

    • Re:Lungs (Score:4, Informative)

      by mattdm (1931) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @02:54PM (#34258098) Homepage

      What's the acidity of your lungs? Oh, I see. You didn't read the article. Carry on, then.

      • The bacteria they made in the lab likes the acidity of concrete. What about the mutant bacteria that the bacteria in the crack makes?
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by mattdm (1931)

          The bacteria they made in the lab likes the acidity of concrete. What about the mutant bacteria that the bacteria in the crack makes?

          It won't survive because it's still in the very alkaline concrete environment? Or as Morbo might put it: EVOLUTION DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by shadow_slicer (607649)

          Usually when you say that the bacteria 'likes' acidity it means that at least one of the proteins it depends on requires the acidity to function. If there are several proteins that are essential for the bacteria to live, the probability that all of the required mutations would occur becomes reasonably small. Additionally, even if the bacteria are able to mutate in such a way to live outside the concrete, they would be poorly adapted to that environment, and would most likely become food for something else.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by kenp2002 (545495)

            So the assumption, as I read it, is the environment in which the bacteria is deployed is assumed to have a consistent pH level to help it identify that it is in fact, concrete. However anything that also has that pH could potentially be a hospitiable environment.

            Question: How are they planning on accounting for a non-lab environment where everything from moisture, temperature, hell even lighting apparently, can influence the pH of the target location? Based on respitory infection the pH in a lung is hardly

            • Re:Lungs (Score:4, Informative)

              by reverseengineer (580922) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @04:45PM (#34260062)
              It turns out that the press release is not really accurate with regard to the effect pH has on this engineered bacterium. The starting bacterium, Bacillus subtilis 168 naturally prefers a neutral pH, but by growing generations of this bacteria in media with gradually increased pH, it can be acclimated [igem.org] to thrive at the pH of concrete (roughly 10). This requires no engineered genetic modification. The steps to control the spread of this bacterium have little to do with pH, actually. First, the bacterium comes from a strain of Bacillus subtilis which has been produced as the result of decades of laboratory cultures, and is a mutant which depends on many key nutrients to be present in its enviroment to survive. In the wild, it would be a massively deficient competitor to wild Bacillus subtilis, which is extremely common in nature.

              Also, the concrete repair activity is produced by upregulation of genes natural to Bacillus subtilis, not by anything transgenic. The upregulation of these genes presents an energy cost to the engineered bacterium while providing no benefit- if these bacteria mutate, it is more likely to be towards the wild phenotype. In addition, the team responsible has added a kill switch [igem.org] which tells the bacteria to commit suicide if sucrose is not present.

              • In addition, the team responsible has added a kill switch [igem.org] which tells the bacteria to commit suicide if sucrose is not present.

                I see, so when it escapes it's concrete prison, it'll infect and petrify only fatties like me who eat sweets, and the skinny hipsters who only drink cane-sugar sweetened soda?

                And in exchange, get a really cool set of statuary?

                Suh-weet.

      • by ebuck (585470)

        It's a good thing that no two items have the same pH. It's like a fingerprint! Hahahaha!!!

    • Re:Lungs (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Phillip2 (203612) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @05:13PM (#34260496)

      One has an immune system, and the other looks like concrete.

    • And the bacteria knows the difference between concrete and lung tissue how?

      Well

      Bacillus subtilis, known also as the hay bacillus or grass bacillus, is a Gram-positive, catalase-positive bacterium commonly found in soil.[3] ... B. subtilis is not a human pathogen. It may contaminate food but rarely causes food poisoning.[5] B. subtilis produces the proteolytic enzyme subtilisin. B. subtilis spores can survive the extreme heat during cooking. B. subtilis is responsible for causing ropiness — a sticky, stringy consistency caused by bacterial production of long-chain polysacchar

  • ... where bacteria-laden cast concrete garden gnomes evolve intelligence.

    And it's not a pretty sight.

  • Article summary states how it works incorrectly, which confused me.

    "When the cells have been germinated, they burrow deep into the concrete until they reach the bottom."

    should be

    "When the cells have been germinated, they burrow deep into the concrete CRACKS until they reach the bottom"

    Made me think at first it's going through the solid concrete which didn't sound like a good idea.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Made me think at first it's going through the solid concrete which didn't sound like a good idea.

      I'm not sure why it's a bad idea to strengthen the concrete where it isn't damaged, but I guess if your design depends on a certain amount of flex it could cause you problems.

      I visited this story wondering if this could be tailored to improve concrete which was of generally poor quality because the mix was poor, which is burrowing through almost-solid concrete...

      • Bone actually works like that, the osteoclasts eat the bone and their direction is controlled by electrical stimulation generated by stresses in the bone, which is followed by osteoblasts which build up the bone. This results in the bone being strongest in the direction that is most likely to be stressed.

  • ...but does it work on plumbers too?
  • Just had a look into my fridge.
  • More Info From iGEM (Score:5, Informative)

    by reverseengineer (580922) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @03:27PM (#34258684)
    This engineered bacterium system was entered into the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, so there's a lot more information about this project at the team's [igem.org]project page. [igem.org] In particular, there's a more thorough description of the kill switch [igem.org] the team engineered to prevent the spread of this bacterium beyond the target environment, the underlying mechanism being that sucrose must be available in the environment to prevent the bacterium from producing a toxin which kills itself.
    • by davidc (91400)

      Sucrose?

      Oh I see! This is nothing more than a system to convert fast food into concrete. Repair the sidewalk and cure the obesity epidemic in one fell swoop.

    • by Stupid McStupidson (1660141) on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @04:23PM (#34259722)
      "Mommy, I spilled my shake all over the sidewalAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGHGGHGHGHG"
    • by Reziac (43301) *

      Ah, thanks, that answers my question above -- the soil where I live is so alkaline that it's comparable to concrete. I was wondering how you'd avoid a runaway in that situation, but adding the sucrose-based nutrient-limiter routine seems to solve it well enough -- alkaline soils typically are pretty much nutrient-free.

  • Why do you need bacteria to make glue in the cracks when you can simply insert glue directly into the crack without bacteria? What am I missing?
    • by Reziac (43301) * on Wednesday November 17, 2010 @05:49PM (#34261182) Homepage Journal

      If you've ever tried to pump glue into a crack in concrete, you'll quickly figure that out. It's somewhere between messy and inadequate as a repair method, and certainly doesn't get into the smaller cracks, let alone the microcracks. The idea here is to have the glue self-extend, filling the air pockets and microcracks that no glue with sufficient surface tension to stick could ever manage.

      However I think where this will become a more useful technique is for fixing the kinds of surface cracks that ail structures exposed to repeated wet/freeze/thaw cycles -- the typical winter climate for the east slope of the Rocky Mountains. Mount Rushmore would seem to be a good candidate, since seasonal surface cracking is what's causing damage.

      Concrete roads that suffer similar winter freeze/thaw damage could also benefit -- instead of trying to patch the road one crack at a time (usually an exercise in futility, culminating in yawning potholes), or having to dig up and replace the concrete (an extremely expensive job), just wash it with a slurry of this bacteria. That could even eliminate most of the seasonal damage, by filling the microcracks that are where freeze damage starts.

      Imagine if your state and local highway departments could reduce their budgets by simply needing to do less repair on concrete-based roads. Even if you don't believe in reducing taxes when need is reduced, it would free up that budget to use elsewhere.

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8gSTiWKm6A [youtube.com]

    This can only go terribly wrong.
  • I suspect the Brits are also working on having this technology used as non-conductive fillings.

  • I've got no problem with using a method like this to patch concrete used for sidewalks, roads, etc. But (as an Engineer) I would have a strong reluctance to applying it to any significant structure (e.g.: Bridges, Buildings, etc.). Yes, it may fill the cracks. But what are the structural characteristics in compression, sheer, and to a lesser extent, tension? What is the bond strength with the adjacent intact concrete, as well as the reinforcing steel. How will the resultant material act over time? Co

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