Growing fabrics?! (A call to collaboration)

One of my splendid Edgy colleagues spotted this presentation on TED. It got me rather excited. Suzanne Lee is using sheets of (mostly) cellulose manufactured by millions of microbes to make clothing! The project is called BioCouture (follow the blog link from the bottom of the BioCouture page for most up-to-date info).

There is so much to love about this, but as someone who loves a nice cup of Sri Lanka’s finest infusion, I am particularly delighted by the fact that the culture is grown in tea. The brew is called kombucha (which literally translates as “seaweed tea”), and has long been used as a kind of tonic drink, although having seen the stuff, I am curious as to how anyone thought to try drinking it! As you’ll see in Suzanne Lee’s videos, a couple of weeks of the microbes working away in a tub produces a thick mat on top of the tea, which looks to me rather like a big slab of pig skin.

The microbes that do the work are a collection of bacteria and yeasts: each helps keep conditions friendly for the other, which we call a symbiotic relationship (such a culture is sometimes known as a SCOBY – Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). If my basic understanding is sensible, the yeast help keep the environment acidic, which makes the acetobacter cells happy to pump out cellulose fibrils; over time, these form a network that becomes great big floating home to all those tiny microbes.

Although kombucha has remained mostly in the culinary domain, Ms Lee isn’t the first to see the potential of cellulose-based materials made by microscopic things instead of plants (cellulose is the stuff we get from plants to make paper, cellophane, Rayon/viscose, and is the main component of textiles like cotton; it’s the main structural material plants make and are made from). Nöle Giulini used kombucha to make some rather fleshy-looking sculptures, and, as outlined in this jolly convenient article, microbe-produced cellulose has already found uses in food, medical and paper-making.

Despite the excitement and potential, there are always a bunch of intimidating technical challenges in projects like these. Suzanne Lee’s scientific collaborators are working on how to make the kombucha-derived material more water-resistant and durable (it currently absorbs water readily and breaks down quite quickly), as well as working on ways to optimise the bacteria’s productivity. This video touches on a few of the challenges and approaches. You may also note from Professor Brown’s summary that people don’t seem to be making paper purely from bacterial cellulose; I presume this is because you big sturdy fibres to make paper, and the bacteria (being tiny and single-celled) make tiny fine meshes. Or maybe it’s to do with the other material present that helps to bind the layers in wood-derived paper. Please comment if you know!

Clearly there is still much to learn and much to try, and one of the things I find exciting about this is that it’s science you can experiment with at home (or, say, at The Edge)! We are eager to see what we can do in this area, and would love to get more clever and enthusiastic people aboard. We’ll be teaming up with some university-based fashion innovators, and I would be delighted to hear from any kombucha enthusiasts, microbiologists, biochemists, polymer chemists, paper- and/or textile-makers, and anyone else who’s interested! So, if you want to get all mad sciency and try growing clothing, fabrics, fibres, paper or something entirely new in a vat, please leave a comment below or just drop in at The Edge: I’m usually about on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, and will also be at the Mad Scientist Tea Party on 12 June and the Science Fair on 23 June.

Let’s get something brewing!

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