Italy earthquake
A partially collapsed wall is seen following an earthquake in Norcia, Italy, October 30.Reuters

With reports of an earthquake measuring the magnitude of 7.1 hitting Italy earlier on Sunday, people around the world braced for the worse. While buildings, including historical churches, collapsed and rescue work are still ongoing, the silver lining so far has been that no death has been reported.  

The US Geological Survey was also quick to issue a revision that scaled down the intensity to 6.6. Around 12 people have been injured, according to reports. 

Italy has been victim to a number of earthquakes recently. Various studies are warning that with the increase in global warming, the effect on climate change through rising sea levels is triggering imbalance among the subsurface tectonic plates and hence the rising number of earthquakes.

So far, apart from issuing warning systems and improving disaster management and evacuation drills, we are very helpless against nature's fury. But if research being done in the UK is successful, genetically engineered microbes used as bio-cement may one day be the standard norm as construction material to avoid building collapses.

Inspired by undergraduates who made a concrete-repairing bacterium — dubbed BacillaFilla — bio designers are now pursuing bio-cement as a material that custom-built soil microbes would produce in response to the changing pressures in soil to help shore up the ground under foundations.

The team has grown a common gut bacterium in surrogate soil — a "hydrogel" shaped into a cylinder that was further subjected to pressures up to 10 times that experienced at the sea level. They continued their research by identifying 122 bacterial genes that increased their activity by at least threefold by the pressure change.

The team then modified the bacterial genome so that the regulatory DNA responsible for activating one of these genes was attached to a gene for a protein that glows when produced.

The more pressure exerted on the microbe, the more intensely it glows.

Eventually, the researchers plan to replace the glowing protein gene with genes that make bio-cement, creating a "thinking soil" that will keep buildings safe and be a self-constructing foundation. 

The incorporation of biology into architecture is also the focus of work done by Dr. Rachel Armstrong, an interdisciplinary practitioner and sustainability innovator who, among other things, also studied protocell technology that could stop the city of Venice from sinking on its soft geological foundations by generating a sustainable, artificial reef under the foundations of Venice and spreading the point load of the city. She believes that her research, which is at a prototype stage, could be ready in 15 or 20 years.