Trend in Biotechnology | Clothes Made from Cells

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Do you know any talented tailors who love to sew fabrics? Well here's an introduction to some clever folks who can literally grow clothes. While this trend in biotechnology has just begun to emerge, the idea of using organics in the textile industry has been around for a long time. "Biofabrication" can make clothing and shoes more comfortable, useful, kind, and even sustainable.

Biofabrication | An Emerging Trend in Biotechnology

Using organic materials for clothing almost certainly emerged when the first people had the good idea to cover themselves in furs, animal skins, or plant fiber. These days, even the traditional textile industry relies upon modern biotechnology. For instance, plenty of manufacturers use organic enzymes on textiles and natural fabrics. Some help prevent wool shrinkage and others provide the dyes and softeners that give denim its faded appearance and soft texture.

Still, newer and more advanced technology may soon displace the common sources of many synthetic and natural materials used for apparel, accessories, and shoes. Scientists and engineers strive to replace old methods with less problematic ones. Since various scientists and engineers are busy researching different avenues of research, it's helpful to explore some examples of how this future tech is already improving both the industry and its products today.

The Protocell: A Building Block

A new frontier in biofabrication is to grow living cells and other organics to produce or treat fabrics, clothes, shoes, and accessories. Vox profiled Rachel Armstrong, a living-materials scientist. As the term implies, these so-called living materials can change, grow, and even respond to their external environment.

This scientist mostly focuses on using "protocells," or synthetically grown cells that engineers can grow in a lab to display specific behaviors. Note that these cells don't have RNA or DNA and aren't truly considered alive. Still, they can mimic the behavior of living cells in order to provide their intended benefits.

To understand how protocell materials can work, first consider a couple of examples not from the clothing industry but from architecture:

  • Dr. Armstrong has already begun exploring a smart paint that can transform carbon emissions into their solid form, similar to limestone. This paint can help make buildings carbon-negative to offset emissions from energy use.
  • Another application includes engineering reefs to help restore foundations and keep buildings from sinking in such vulnerable locations as Venice.

Designer Running Shoes

running shoes in stadium

For running shoes, imagine this same kind of tech replacing rubber and synthetic soles. With these "protosoles,"  engineers can move away from polluting manufacturing processes and non-sustainable sources. Not only that, these soles will constantly repair themselves, so they won't need replacing so often.

Brand new, the shoes will come with a little bubble of protocells hidden in the shoe's heel. Periodically, the owner simply needs to top off this original supply with a chemical solution that Armstrong believes will be commercially available at such common retail outlets as grocery and chain stores. Consumers will also select specific types of these substances to tailor their shoes to their needs. Just a few examples of the consumer's choices might include the ability to mix and match solutions for non-stick, extra-durable, or even glow-in-the-dark soles.

Self-repairing shoes and home foundations or carbon-negative paints all sound like very practical applications of this new technology. They also might sound like special effects in a science fiction or fantasy movie. At the same time, Dr. Armstrong believes that with the right funding, she and her group can produce functional systems within the next five years.

Growing Silk From Bacteria

At first glance, replacing spider-grown silk might not appear as important as engineering a way to keep foundations from collapsing or sinking. At the same time, silk isn't just a luxury item for blouses and dresses. Before it was largely replaced by cheaper synthetics, manufacturers used silk to make parachutes, tires, and and other items that required a strong, durable material.

These synthetics can produce a lot more material than spiders can. Of course, the process of manufacturing man-made materials comes with such new problems as pollution and energy costs.

According to Labiotech, industrial farming for spider silk also won't work. One German company, AMSilk, has developed a way to spin silk not from spiders but from bacteria. Bacteria can produce the basic proteins as spider silk, but they do it inside of fermentation bioreactors. The company then spins these proteins into silk fibers that they can then transform into fabric.

Very recently, AMSilk launched a silk watchstrap as their debut product. Also interested in shoes, they plan to work with Adidas to develop biodegradable sneakers using their process. Like Dr. Armstron, AMSilk believes they can produce new products with beneficial properties while reducing pollution and reliance upon non-sustainable materials.

Bringing Color to Fashion With Algae

The chemicals used to dye clothes cause health and environmental problems. For instance, discarded dyes and dyed clothes cause pollution and can even change the way water absorbs and reflects light, harming the ecosystem. Some dyes cause allergic reaction and others have even been classified as carcinogenic.

A German-Israeli company called  Algalife aims to remedy this problem by using algae to create dyes. Renana Krebs, the company's CEO, says they don't require anything to create their dyes but water and sunlight. Their process also produces no waste.

In fact, rather than causing illnesses and allergic reactions, Krebs said they intend to make dye for clothes that actually may help improve health with protein and vitamins the skin can absorb. The company plans to produce sportswear and home products first with their first mass-production sometime in 2020.

Another company called Faber Futures has also used fermented bacteria as a clothing dye. The founder of this company, Natsai Audrey Chieza, said that traditional dying requires 500 times more water than their process. Currently, Faber Futures is still working on colorfast dyes that won't fade after repeated washes or sun exposure and expects to launch products for sale within a couple of years.

Cultivating Fungi for Fabrics

Biologists refer to the fibrous roots of mushrooms as mycelia. A Dutch company named NEFFA has devised a way to transform these mycelia fibers into fabric for clothing. They're grown in discs and molded together to create seamless clothing.

Besides missing seams, production of these clothes also skips other steps in the typical clothing production process, including cutting, weaving, and sewing. Not only will this process reduce waste and speed up production, it also minimizes the need for transporting source materials, using farmland, and watering plants.

Aniela Hoitink, NEFFA's founder, says that they've already produced prototypes of purses, jackets, and dresses. The fabric lends an elegant, contemporary appearance to their products. Fashionistas who don't care to be seen in the same outfit twice may especially appreciate these fungus-grown clothing. After wearing the clothes, they can simply be buried in the earth to decompose and feed the next natural cycle.

Growing Leather in the Lab

Samples of differing of leather textures

You've probably read some articles about creating lab-grown meat to reduce the need for farming and slaughtering live animals. A company called Modern Meadows can culture lab-grown leather without using cows or other animals at all.

To produce leather, they use a specific strain of yeast that's been engineered to generate collagen. Collagen refers to the protein that gives leather its distinctive stretch and strength. Instead of having to remove fur, fat, and everything that isn't collagen to make leather, they start with that raw material. Once the company cleans, presses, and tans their product, they have produced something just about indistinguishable from leather.

According to The Atlantic, the founders of Modern Meadows originally started out to produce lab-grown tissue for medical use. They also explored producing lab-grown meat. Over time, they found the economies of generating leather from yeast to yield a better bottom line. They say that their product actually offers benefits over traditional leather besides not having to use cows. For instance, they can produce sheets of leather independent of an animal's size and create materials that are both incredibly thin and very strong.

Is This Trend in Biotechnology the Future of Fabrics?

The clothing industry has been plagued by a number of serious ethical and sustainability issues. Just a few examples include labor exploitation, including child labor, unsafe manufacturing processes and materials, environmental contamination and over-farming, and animal cruelty.

By using synthetic protocells, bacteria, and even fungi instead of plants and animals, scientists can develop alternative manufacturing methods that eliminate these problems. Even better, these engineered products can overcome limitations in the kinds and amounts of materials produced on an industrial scale.

Will you rely upon these sort of cultured fabrics? After all, the sneakers you have in your closet can't repair themselves. In a few years, you may have a chance to replace those outdated shoes with a new pair of sneakers that can not only repair their own damage but that can be customized at will to function better in the dark or on slippery surfaces. With advantages like these, you might get used to the idea.