NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program has awarded a $100,000 grant to scientists at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Over the next nine months the research team will use the grant to combine experimental biological materials with additive manufacturing in order to create 3D printed cell structures unlike anything currently in development today.

"Imagine being able to print anything from tools and composite building materials to food and human tissues," Lynn Rothschild, the chief scientist of synthetic biology wrote on the NASA website. "Imagine being on Mars with the ability to replace any broken part, whether it's a part of your space suit, your habitat, or your own body. We propose a technique that would allow just that."

The researchers plan to engineer groups of cells that will secrete specific materials. Those materials can then be used as building blocks to create just about anything, whether in space or on earth. The NIAC/NASA website described the project this way: "By printing 3D arrays of cells engineered to secrete the necessary materials, the abundant in situ resources of atmosphere and regolith become organic, inorganic or organic-inorganic composite materials."

Stanford PhD student Diana Gentry is credited as being the one to come up with the idea of working on biocomposite traits, the core concept that led to the grant. Gentry, along with Stanford graduate student Ashley Micks, are working at Ames to provide proof of concept for the project. If all goes well they will be able to apply for a Phase II grant from NIAC that will continue funding their research past the nine-month mark.

"The thing that I've been pushing is an exquisite need for miniaturization," Rothschild said. "If you push the field that direction this does have huge spin-offs for the medical field because you can take some of these technologies and deliver point-of-care services."

Point of care services that rely on 3D printing are already in development at laboratories across America. Wake Forest researchers are working on 3D printed kidneys and bioprinting company Organovo is producing 3D printed cell arrays to test new cancer drugs.