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The future of fashion: Are bioengineered materials the next big trend?

Rain Speake discusses biomaterials start-ups that are utilising synthetic biology to develop sustainable materials for the fashion industry.

The textile industry is the one of the largest polluting industries in the world. Fabric fibres derived from unsustainable raw materials are one of the major culprits in fashion’s ever-growing pollution problem. For instance, plastic-based synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic are all extracted from non-renewable fossil fuels like petroleum. Their reliance upon the petrochemical industry is particularly unfavourable, as this sector is notorious for catastrophic oil spills and its role in biodiversity loss. In addition, synthetic fibres add to the global plastic pandemic as they are non-biodegradable and do not reintegrate into the earth once disposed of. Similarly, naturally-occurring fibres can also negatively impact the environment. Protein-based fibres such as wool and leather contribute to the rising methane output, whilst plant-based fibres such as cotton require toxic pesticides which seep into the soil and contaminate water sources.

In the last decade, synthetic biology has been utilised to design and develop more eco-friendly material alternatives. Synthetic biology is described as the construction of completely new biological systems and parts or the process of redesigning existing organisms for useful purposes. But this branch of science is not new. Humans have been harnessing its effects for centuries—just think of cheese, bread, beer, and even insulin. In the textiles industry, microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and yeasts act as mini “laboratories” or “factories” for biomaterials to grow. Through genetic engineering, scientists can alter the genetic makeup of these microorganisms to produce biodegradable yet hard-wearing fibers which are subsequently made into garments.

Listed below are some examples of biomaterial start-ups that are currently combining the fields of biology, engineering, materials science, and design to develop sustainable products for future commercial use.

· Modern Meadow produces ZOA™, an animal-free leather alternative made using collagen proteins derived from genetically engineered yeast. This material is more environmentally friendly compared to its traditional leather counterpart as its production does not require livestock rearing or farmland. This consequently reduces the greenhouse gas emissions and waste associated with cattle farming.

· Bolt Threads currently has two trademarked textile biomaterials: Microsilk™ and Mylo™. Microsilk is fabricated through the bioengineering of yeast cells to produce spider silk proteins. When isolated and purified, the silk proteins are then spun into biodegradable fibres which have shockingly similar characteristics to acrylic and rayon. Unlike Microsilk, Mylo does not use genetic engineering technology. Instead, this bio-based leather is made from mycelium that is grown, processed, and dyed in indoor vertical farming facilities.

· Spiber has developed a protein fibre called Brewed Protein™ using a microbial fermentation process that is also based on the DNA used to produce spider silk. This fibre boasts uses in a variety of applications, from delicate, silk-like filaments and cashmere-like yarns to resins imitating animal horn and tortoiseshell.

· AlgiKnit creates yarns derived from kelp which do not rely on harmful pesticides and fertilisers. Moreover, kelp is regarded as one of the most renewable organisms on the planet and is also known to combat global warming by sequestering CO2. As kelp is a natural resource, the yarns biodegrade under the correct composting conditions. However, outside these humid compost environments, they retain their durability and practicality which make them suitable for everyday wear.

For fashion designers, synthetic biology and biofabrication offer exciting new opportunities to create materials possessing specific textures and properties. For the planet, these biomaterial innovations hopefully signal the beginning of a greater and greener revolution within the textiles industry and beyond.

From Issue 21


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