Spiders, mushrooms and algae may help build the next Hilfiger, Levi and Chanel.
Organisms are the great designers of our planet, producing materials in distinct patterns to serve a specific function. Bees produce hexagonal honeycombs to store honey, spiders weave symmetrical webs to capture prey, and nautiluses form a logarithmic spiral shell to protect their insides. Synthetic biologists, ever inspired by nature, are leveraging these unique abilities, harnessing nature’s potential to revolutionize apparel by guiding structural assemblies at the molecular level.
Here are three examples of innovative companies — in Tokyo, New York, and Berkeley — that are letting nature show the way to better, more sustainable materials in a quest to alter the fashion and apparel industries forever.
Biomaterials abound. Hexagonal honeycombs, a nautilus shell and a spider’s web are examples of biomaterials patterned into higher-order structures. Images from Pixabay.
Protein engineering to build materials stronger than steel
Synthetic biologists have long “tweaked” genetic information to produce specific chemicals from living cells, but engineering the blueprints that specify higher-order structures may hold even greater potential. Nowhere is this more apparent than in spider silk, a material five times stronger than steel by weight and is increasingly being produced by microbes through fermentation, rather than actual spiders.
“In the case of spider silk specifically, using bioengineered silks is the only real option for mass production. Spiders don’t like to be farmed — they prefer to eat each other when put into small spaces together — and harvesting threads from individual spiders is incredibly time consuming and inefficient,” says David Lips, Researcher at Spiber Inc., a biomaterials company headquartered in Japan that has generated a wide range of protein-based materials with functions that far outshine natural variants. For example, while natural silk contracts when in contact with water, Spiber has developed “an altered silk protein material that is hydrophobic and does not contract when wet or in humid environments,” they explain. “We believe this achievement will be a game-changer for many outdoor applications.”
A film made from structural protein materials. Credit: Spiber Inc.
For the last 12 years, Spiber has undoubtedly pioneered the genetic manipulation of silk, which in silkworms is made from just two interlocking proteins, but they have also found success in developing other protein-based materials using their molecular design, fermentation, and prototyping pipeline.
“As you can imagine, different applications have different specifications that the material needs to adhere to, such as a specific tolerance for heat or humidity, more flexibility, more stiffness, extreme toughness or the ability to stick to surfaces. All of these properties are governed by the physical interactions that occur at the molecular level of the material. Needless to say, changing the molecular composition of proteins by designing a different amino acid sequence can drastically alter the performance of a material. This question — figuring out the best possible molecular design for a specific material — is an iterative process that lies at the core of what Spiber does,” says Lips.
This approach has enabled Spiber to develop unique, protein-based materials for stiff resins, flexible films, and soft foams. In 2015, Spiber partnered with The North Face to launch a high-performance ski jacket, called the Moon Parka, which is now being prototyped for a second-generation version.
The second MOON PARKA®️ prototype undergoing field testing. Credit: Spiber Inc.
But the future of apparel is not limited to engineered protein-based materials. Synthetic biologists have also managed to produce patterned and structured materials by going directly to the source.
Molecular assembly platforms for fashion
At Ecovative Design, materials are grown, not synthesized. The company uses mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, to assemble complex materials that often outperform industry leading materials while remaining eco-friendly. Eben Bayer, Co-Founder and CEO, started the company in 2007 to leverage mycelium’s remarkably fast growth rate, higher heat resistance compared to plastic, enhanced insulating capabilities, and its tunable porosity to address serious challenges in biomanufacturing. Today, Ecovative Design has delivered millions of pounds of mycelium-based products to broad industries from their world-leading Mycelium Foundry in New York. MycoFlex, which is Ecovative Design’s “high-performance, pure mycelium foam” that can be used for everything from textiles to footwear, can be grown in just 9 days, and its properties tuned to specification.
“The mission at Ecovative is using mycelium technology, which we view as a molecular assembly platform … to address the biggest problems facing our planet,” says Bayer. “Our MycoFlex platform, which is being used in the apparel space as leather…grows in the open air, like a sheet. [The mycelium] produce a matrix with variable porosity, tensile strength and other properties. The strain, food, and environmental conditions can all be used to influence the bulk structure properties or the properties at the molecular level to create a fully formed matrix made by nature,” Bayer explains.
Published data from the company also demonstrates some of the relevant properties of the mycelium, which is a porous structure composed of tubular hypha filaments made from interlocking networks of chitin, glucan, and proteins. These data indicate that mycelium structures have “considerable strain hardening before rupture under tension” and mechanical rigidity and strength, a property derived from the chitin microfibrils.
MycoFlex material made from mycelium. Credit: Ecovative Design
While mycelium materials already possess better properties than other materials used in the apparel industry — particularly enhanced insulation with their MycoFlex platform for technical wear — the company is also addressing a serious, unmet need in the apparel industry with their mission for renewable biomaterials. The apparel industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions — the second largest industrial polluter after oil — and yet few solutions are on the table to curb the $3 trillion industry.
“In fashion or apparel, we are continuing to develop several products, including foam, like soft cushioning foam for sneakers to replace EVA foam,” says Bayer, referring to the plastic-based foam used in everything from yoga mats to sneakers. “Sneakers typically don’t last more than a year and it makes a ton of sense to have a material that is either recyclable or compostable in your sneaker, and the way EVA is combined with other materials today in sneakers means you can’t even recycle it, whereas a shoe that had an Ecovative MycoFlex cushioning section could actually be composted for the first step in recycling,” touts Bayer.
Ecovative Design co-founders Gavin McIntyre (left) and Eben Bayer (right) holding structured materials made from mycelium. Credit: Ecovative Design
Algae: Material production powerhouses
While some biomaterials are particularly amenable to genetic engineering — like spider silk and protein-based materials — and others can be grown into desired structures with tunable properties — like mycelium — other biomaterials are produced by coupling metabolic engineering capabilities of synthetic strains with organic chemistry. Checkerspot, in Berkeley, California, has mastered this approach, engineering microalgae to produce bio-based oils that can subsequently be used in downstream chemical modifications to synthesize products that would otherwise be difficult to manufacture.
“We use a microalgae that has a high lipid content, about 70%, to produce oils that would be otherwise difficult to manufacture by chemical means,” says Dr. Scott Franklin, scientific co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Checkerspot. “The strains that we use are also very robust, so we can reliably scale up production from this organism to greater than 625 cubic meters.”
A strain of microalgae with high lipid content that is used in the manufacturing of bio-derived oils. Credit: Checkerspot
The apparel industry has long been plagued by a tradeoff between performance and renewability, with properties like hydrophobicity or tensile strength often demanding the use of a dangerous — or damaging — ingredient. Most athletic wear with water-repellent properties, for example, uses coatings that contains perfluorinated compounds to render them hydrophobic. But perfluorinated coatings are often toxic, particularly the short-chain (C6 and C8) variants, despite their ubiquity in commercial products with synthetic coatings. Checkerspot is looking to address these challenges with synthetic biology and a bit of chemistry, producing a repertoire of better, bio-derived oils to make better materials with comparable, or superior, hydrophobic properties.
“Fluorinated coatings are used in a lot of products – apparel, cookware, yoga pants — but they can often be toxic and lose performance over time as they shed into the environment. We are developing bio-based hydrophobic coatings that do not contain fluorine and are comparable or have better properties than the leading standards … we are also working on oleophobic, or oil-repelling, products, which is a much more difficult problem,” says Franklin. Checkerspot has also supplied algal oil to one of its partners, Beyond Surface Technologies (BST), as a substitute for palm oil — another ubiquitous lipid — just as the EU labels palm oil-derived biofuels as “unsustainable”.
A textile with miDori Bio Wick finishing, a hydrophilic finish, created with Beyond Surface Technologies. Credit: Checkerspot
Chemical companies were also quick to realize microalgae’s unique advantages for advanced materials. For nearly a year, Checkerspot has been working with DIC, a large Japanese chemical company, on the sustainable production of high performance polyols, which are used in everything from spray coatings to elastomeric resins.
While Checkerspot has proven capabilities in applying synthetic biology and chemistry to manufacture enhanced materials, they have also developed numerous tools for microalgae engineering that are vastly expanding the utility of these organisms in bioproduction. “We are really focused on producing products that are sustainable, high-performing, and can be used as a scaffold for subsequent chemical reactions — but discovery comes first. Discovery is always first,” says Franklin.
The co-founders of Checkerspot, Charles Dimmler (left) and Dr. Scott Franklin (right). Credit: Checkerspot
In a world where organisms can be engineered to manufacture human insulin, biofuels, and even cannabinoids, the logical advancement is to think bigger — to use non-model organisms to produce renewable, macromolecular structures with defined properties and programmable behaviors. Sometimes these structures can be produced from retrofitted organisms — like E. coli and yeast for the production of protein-based materials — but other times, the “bigger picture” demands building tools for underutilized organisms, like mycelium and microalgae. Spiber, Ecovative Design, and Checkerspot are the rising kings in applying synthetic biology approaches to usher in a new era of apparel, where high-performance and sustainability actually coexist.
Want to learn more about bioengineered apparel? Don’t miss Junichi Sugahara, Director and Executive Officer of Spiber, speaking at SynBioBeta 2019, October 1-3 in San Francisco.