BEBOP - ERC Starting Bacterial biofilms in porous structures: from biomechanics to control

Objective

The key ideas motivating this project are that: 1) precise control of the properties of porous systems can be obtained by exploiting bacteria and their fantastic abilities; 2) conversely, porous media (large surface to volume ratios, complex structures) could be a major part of bacterial synthetic biology, as a scaffold for growing large quantities of microorganisms in controlled bioreactors.

The main scientific obstacle to precise control of such processes is the lack of understanding of biophysical mechanisms in complex porous structures, even in the case of single-strain biofilms. The central hypothesis of this project is that a better fundamental understanding of biofilm biomechanics and physical ecology will yield a novel theoretical basis for engineering and control.

The first scientific objective is thus to gain insight into how fluid flow, transport phenomena and biofilms interact within connected multiscale heterogeneous structures – a major scientific challenge with wide-ranging implications. To this end, we will combine microfluidic and 3D printed micro-bioreactor experiments; fluorescence and X-ray imaging; high performance computing blending CFD, individual-based models and pore network approaches.

The second scientific objective is to create the primary building blocks toward a control theory of bacteria in porous media and innovative designs of microbial bioreactors. Building upon the previous objective, we first aim to extract from the complexity of biological responses the most universal engineering principles applying to such systems. We will then design a novel porous micro-bioreactor to demonstrate how the permeability and solute residence times can be controlled in a dynamic, reversible and stable way – an initial step toward controlling reaction rates.

We envision that this will unlock a new generation of biotechnologies and novel bioreactor designs enabling translation from proof-of-concept synthetic microbiology to industrial processes.