Encapsulation of bacteria in bilayer Pluronic thin film hydrogels: A safe format for engineered living materials

In engineered living materials (ELMs) non-living matrices encapsulate microorganisms to acquire capabilities like sensing or biosynthesis. The confinement of the organisms to the matrix and the prevention of overgrowth and escape during the lifetime of the material is necessary for the application of ELMs into real devices. In this study, a bilayer thin film hydrogel of Pluronic F127 and Pluronic F127 acrylate polymers supported on a solid substrate is introduced. The inner hydrogel layer contains genetically engineered bacteria and supports their growth, while the outer layer acts as an envelope and does not allow leakage of the living organisms outside of the film for at least 15 days. Due to the flat and transparent nature of the construct, the thin layer is suited for microscopy and spectroscopy-based analyses. The composition and properties of the inner and outer layer are adjusted independently to fulfil viability and confinement requirements. We demonstrate that bacterial growth and light-induced protein production are possible in the inner layer and their extent is influenced by the crosslinking degree of the used hydrogel. Bacteria inside the hydrogel are viable long term, they can act as lactate-sensors and remain active after storage in phosphate buffer at room temperature for at least 3 weeks. The versatility of bilayer bacteria thin-films is attractive for fundamental studies and for the development of application-oriented ELMs.