If you’ve been keeping up with my posts on Sundiata Post, you’ll know that my last article was on the faults of the fashion industry! Now that you know all about the problem, let’s start talking about solutions. How do we mitigate the three-pronged fault of the fashion industry? Well, to start, let’s recap what those three faults actually are (also, let’s recap in case you didn’t read the post two weeks ago!):
- Inadequate and unsafe working conditions.
- Environmental detriments and hazardous waste products.
- Fashion products encourage consumers to be wasteful because they are not adaptable or multipurpose.
Ultimately, mitigating these three problems will require the right technologies, operations, and tools to create effective solutions. Most notably, they will have to be able to provide substitutes that do not require companies or individuals to have to compromise.
So, how do we create clothing and fabrics that do not need factories, produce greenhouse gases, water contaminants, and encourage multiple versions to be created and used? Well, what follows is a review of some possible solutions that could allow us to do just that.
Cellular Agriculture (Cell Ag) is an emerging application of biology that describes how protein can be cultivated without harming animals, the environment, or requiring traditional and unethical labour-intensive factory processes. If you have heard of this technology before, it’s likely that you learned about it in the context of food, but Cell Ag can do a lot more than make meat or dairy from cells (though these are still exciting applications of this technology)!
If you did not know already, our world is actually heavily dependent on proteins. Not only are these the molecules that play a role in nearly every biological process that goes on inside of our body, but they are also responsible for causing the many different properties that our products have. Fibrous proteins help with the structures of different materials used in clothing; toothpaste and moisturizers have collagen in them, and milk has casein and whey, which is what makes it taste, look, smell, and behave the way it does. From nutritional benefit to comfort, protein is the backbone of nearly every industry (and living thing) there is.
This is why cellular agriculture is so important. Because it can help us create practically anything, because protein is a constituent for almost everything we interact with daily.
So, how does cellular agriculture work for fashion specifically? Good question.
Like I had mentioned before, this technology farms cells from different organisms to grow into something (like meat, for example), or to create proteins. This same process is used for cellular agriculture-based fashion.
In this particular case, however, we have two choices to make fabrics:
No, we are not going to be making jackets out of spider guts, or jeans from mushroom heads, but we are going to be using the materials that they make/are made out of. For spiders, it is their silk, a protein and amino acid-rich material that is both dense and light. With mushrooms (and technically any other fungus or fungus-like bacteria) is their mycelium, which is their threadlike and vegetative area of their colonies, made up of branched strings called hyphae.
Both materials can be used in different ways to construct fabrics that make up clothes.
How we can use spider silk to make fabrics, ft. Bolt Threads
Bolt Threads’ microsilk line is currently in partnership with various companies, such as Stella McCartney, leveraging the technology to make fabrics. They can do this because of the proteins inside of spider silk. Synthesis of fibers requires three main proteins:
- Fibroin. This is a non-dissolvable (insoluble) protein that gives materials their fibrous properties. It’s great for creating polymers, and flexible, stringy, and liquid-like materials.
- Elastin. It’s that protein that’s very stretchy and is in the extracellular matrix (and silk). It’s super good for creating flexibility in materials and making them soft and comfortable.
- Major ampullate spidroin 1 and Major ampullate spidroin 2. This is a protein that gives the silk its tensile strength and part of its malleability.
All three of these are scleroproteins, a type of protein that helps with structural composition, and isn’t soluble (doesn’t dissolve) in water.
To get silk would be very resource intensive, unsustainable, and time-wasting, so they can’t really just capture spiders and solicit their spider silk from their spinneret glands. Instead, Bolt Threads is able to make the silk themselves using yeast, a well-known fungus. (4)
Why not use human or animal cells for this? Well, yeast is oddly a great candidate to make spider silk because its entire genome — the combination of all its genes — has been sequenced, so it is very well understood. It is also not considered to be sentient or have “feeling”, so ethical issues are reduced by using it as a vessel for safe genetic engineering.
By using their own unique gene editing system, the scientists at Bolt Threads can cut out specific parts of yeast cells that code for protein production and insert new genetic sequences from spiders that code for the construction of silk and the proteins that make it! That is why the people working on this are so obsessed with understanding spiders and their silk, because they are using genetic sequences from them that encode making silk into the yeast!
Bolt Threads harmlessly extracts the genes for silk production in the spider, or they can print it. Then, they’re able to transplant the ability of making silk proteins to the yeast via a plasmid vector.
The plasmid is a circular bundle of DNA that is present in our bodies, and responsible for independent replication of DNA. This is leveraged by sending vehicles of DNA (called vectors) to snip out a part of the plasmid’s DNA, and replace it with the silk-encoding sequence. The plasmid then communicates this new gene to the rest of the DNA-containing structures in the yeast, making the yeast suitable for producing silk! The process can be visualised like this:
And the process does not just stop there. Just because the yeast has now been re-engineered to make the right protein, the yeast itself needs stimulation to start producing the protein so that it’s usable. That’s where the process of fermentation comes in.
When bread rises, that’s fermentation of yeast. Fermentation is the biological process of turning one thing into another. I like to call it the body’s magic trick because it’s so powerful. It happens all the time in human beings, especially in our muscles when we’re not taking in enough oxygen to complete respiration to get energy, so we instead get energy by making lactic acid!
This same principle is used in getting the genetically modified yeast to make silk! The GM Yeast is put inside of a bioreactor, in which it’s provided the optimal environment and nutrients to ferment and begin producing silk protein as a byproduct. This silk can then be purified into raw fibrous material which can then be used to create fashionable products like these.
All credit goes to Bolt Threads!
Learning about this should give you a newfound appreciation for yeast!
Mycelium to make handbags, ft. Mylo, MadewithReishi, & Mycoworks
More recently, much of the innovation in sustainable fashion and fabrics have actually been with mycelium. Even Bolt Threads has gotten in on the action, developing a new mycelium product line called Mylo, which they’ve partnered up with different clothing brands to debut. Mycoworks is another company that specialises in the art of mycelium-based fashion, and they have a product line called MadewithReishi, which uses fine mycelium to make the next generation of high fashion.
Unlike yeast, mycelium grows in a multicellular fashion, not a unicellular one. This essentially means that they grow into multiple cells, as opposed to one cell like yeast does. Instead of gene editing the mycelium cells, the cells are given a nice organic bed to sleep on, allowing them to grow into weblike networks.
In fact, because they’re vegetative fungi or fungi-like bacteria, they can be put in serum or even (possibly) grown with more organic serums that contain soils and mosses and the proper factors for them to proliferate. The reason why they don’t need genetic engineering is because their natural properties allow them to be used as fabrics, rather than needing to produce silk protein like yeast does (because it doesn’t have natural characteristics suitable for use, so it’s instead used as a vessel to make materials that do).
Instead, companies like Bolt Threads and Mycoworks have scientists who control things like temperature and humidity to create the perfect growth environment for the mycelium to develop properly, and they ultimately end up forming interesting arrangements, some of which are being looked at to be used in architecture! We may have mycelium clothes and buildings soon enough!
The mycelium continues to grow until it reaches its Hayflick Limit, which is a stopping point for the maximum number of times cells can replicate.
It’s then harvested and purified for use. Sometimes it’s ground up, and other times it’s meshed and processed to create leathers, or spooled into threads for knitting. As dye waste isn’t very healthy for our water systems, it’s not used. Instead, the natural colours the mycelium produces as a material are used, and it actually comes out in really nice and earthy shades of brown, black, tan, and white, all of which are pretty trendy and sought after clothing and accessory colours anyway.
Note that using organic dyes from plants (that won’t contaminate our water sources), the mycelium can soak up new colors as well!
Mycelium products are arguably more versatile and luxurious due to their natural properties, and they produce sheen and beautiful fashion statements like these 😎.
Adidas Mylo shoes, a Mycelium Hermés Birkin bag, and a new Mylo clothing set by Stella McCartney
It’s no secret that Mycelium is truly magical!
The best part of this exciting and aesthetically pleasing technology is the amount of impact that it has. It uses 98% less water, 99% less land, and 96% less greenhouse gas. Imagine if 10% of the world wore mycelium clothing. Now imagine 20 percent. Now 50 percent. Now 70 percent. Now 100%! The impacts are endless in terms of sustainability. Not only are we harming less animals, producing less greenhouse gases (and therefore slowing climate change), and using up less water, but we’re opening up new jobs in developing countries that are also safer and more powerful! Using this method of fabric and clothing production could also mean higher throughput in the textile industry, due to the fact that this process can be completely automated at a lower cost.
One could say that the failures and faults of the fashion industry will be corrected by the future, which lies in fungus!
We live in such an exciting time of innovation and development. It’s up to us to realise it with new and unconventional solutions like these.
Before you go…
My name’s Okezue, a developer and researcher obsessed with learning and building things, especially when it involves any technology or science. Check out my socials here, or contact me: email@example.com.
I write something new every day/week, so I hope to see you again soon! Make sure you comment, and leave some claps on this too — especially if you liked it! I sure enjoyed writing it!
Okezue Bell, is an R&D scientist in a number of Novell technology and biotechnology spaces including cellular agriculture. He is a first place winner in the 2021 Global ICDC DECA competition as well as the 2021 recipient of the Merck Science Achievement Award for excellence in drug discovery and human health.