A/D/O by MINI | Materials: Bacteria

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Materials

Materials: Bacteria

Microorganisms cultivated to form biomaterials for product manufacture are explored in this next chapter of our series on new design materials.

Invisible to the human eye, bacteria is certainly an unlikely design material. Long before microscopes proved the existence of these tiny single-celled organisms, we utilized them to ferment foods and drinks. As technology has advanced to allow us to visualize and to understand the range of roles bacteria plays, a surge of industries emerged to control and manage these living systems – from antibacterial products that kill off types that are harmful to our health, to probiotics that nourish those essential organisms living in our guts.

Designers are also collaborating with scientists to harness some of the unique properties of bacteria to create new materials and processes – some of which pose alternatives to conventional synthetic and energy intensive materials. While the relationship between humans and bacteria is ancient, and many of the newer applications have long been in development, this is a moment of diversion from mined and fossil-fuel-based materials, and an increased awareness and receptivity to living ones; a biomaterial revolution. 

Natsai Audrey Chieza's studio Faber Futures has created textile dyes from bacteria.

Natsai Audrey Chieza of Faber Futures has been working with bacteria as a form of natural dye for the last decade. In her initial research for Project Coelicolor, Chieza collaborated with biochemical engineer John Ward to explore Streptomyces Coelicolor, a soil-dwelling organism that naturally secretes a non-toxic pigment to see if she could produce a color-fix dye. The bacteria turns natural fibers dreamy blues, purples and pinks, similar to the vibrancy of synthetic dyes but with their own unique properties.

Not only were the bacteria able to develop potent colors and organic patterns under the right conditions, but Chieza and Ward discovered that these natural dyes reduce the amount of water used in production by up to 500 times the current industry standard, without using any petroleum. 

Faber Futures used the dyes to pigment silk for its Assemblage project. Photo by Oskar Proctor

In order to scale this eco-friendly production process to replace fashion’s highly polluting practices, Chieza is interested in how to “use the business model to drive part of that innovation”.  She explained: “If fashion is calling for a reset in its business model and how it manufacturers then when we're building a new biotech enabled industry we have the capacity to build that according to new models.” A business predicated on living non-toxic materials will barely resemble the product-to-waste-stream industry we have today.

Laura Luctman and Ilfa Siebenhaar’s Living Colour project also involves bacteria-based dyes.

Laura Luctman and Ilfa Siebenhaar’s project Living Colour is predicated on the environmental advantages to bacteria-based dyes. “As a designer I’m looking for innovative and durable options to change the textile industry from within,” Luchtman told The Journal. Unlike other natural dyes, which Luchtman points out still require large amounts of water and heat, bacteria are quick to cultivate; are not affected by seasonal influences; and do not require vast amounts of land or pesticides to prosper and be processed.

“The pigments also contain antimicrobial properties, that have proven to add an antimicrobial function to fabrics,” she said. Either letting bacteria grow on the fabric, resulting in visible growth patterns, or by using the pigment extract in a dye bath, the Living Colour process is technically scalable but not yet optimized for industrial production methods. “Industrial cultivation of bacteria is possible and has been done for years for medical and food applications,” Luctman said, to emphasize the legitimate potential of scaling bacteria-based dye.

The Living Colour dyes can be used on a variety of textiles.

Other practitioners have tried to tackle the fashion industry through using kombucha – a fermented tea – to make a leather substitute. The material is the bioproduct of the fermentation process, created using the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) that grows on its surface. This material is fleshy when wet but when dried out can be shaped and colored like traditional animal-skin leather. Biocouture founder Suzanne Lee has created a series of jackets from the material, and also works with Modern Meadow – a biotechnology company that uses microorganisms to tailor new materials. Modern Meadow’s Zoa fabric is made of collagen protein and mimics leather almost perfectly. While these items are not commercially available, they serve as models for how the textile industry could change dramatically in the near future.

Biorealize, as studio set up by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, is taking another approach by transferring the bacteria dye process from laboratory to DIY projects that the public could engage with, through a set of Microbial Designer Kits. “We are spending significant time to teach and enable others to design with biology,” said Biorealize cofounder and UPenn professor Orkan Telhan. “I think this is the only way we can grow the field and have more designers tackle the major challenges that are ahead of us.” Telhan is seeing his students in Biological Design classes become increasingly engaged as they see material applications for bacteria, and uses hands-on projects as an inroad into the subject.

Biorealize, MIT Design Lab and Puma's collaboration resulted in bacteria-based packaging.

Biorealize has also been working with large industries to make the concept of biodesign more accessible. Bacteria was the focus of a collaboration between Puma, MIT Design Lab and Biorealize, which resulted in a Breathing Shoe that uses bacteria to create new pathways; a Deep Learning Insole that “uses organisms to measure long and short-term chemical phenomena that indicate fatigue and well-being”; Carbon Eaters clothing, acting as a carbon sensor to determine air quality by changing colors; and Adaptive Packaging made from a bacteria-based biomaterial. While these objects are far from mass production, they project ways in which bacteria could benefit our everyday lives and become a normalized facet of design.

More difficult to control than a dead material like wood or leather, bacteria often takes on a life of its own. “One can never fully control bacteria,” said Telhan. “We can condition them, regulate them, expect them to do certain things for a while, but they always go on their own way at the end. They like to deviate and try out new things all the time. There are lots of things we can learn from their life cycles instead of treating them like machines to program and control.” While being mindful to care and nurture living systems, experimentation and discovery inherent in working with bacteria makes an exciting draw for a new generation of practitioners into the field.

Biorealize's Microbial Designer Kits allow anyone to experiment with bacteria design.

One effort to recognize this growing discipline is the Biodesign Challenge, which invites students from all over the world to compete for a series of prizes. Among many impressive projects that utilize bacteria for everything from keeping blood samples cool to growing materials, Jiwon Woo’s project Mother's Hand Taste (son-mat)  in 2017 presented bacteria in a wholesome and accessible manner. The project investigates the bacteria on different grandmothers’ hands through their making of a traditional Korean alcohol.

The designer noted that both the food and the hand bacteria are altered by the specific strands on each grandmother’s hand, and devised a machine to cultivate this bacteria. The concept that no food will ever be as good as grandma cooked is relatable, and the project sparked a public interest that helped to de-stigmatize the usual associations with bacteria. 

“Everyone should care about the use of bacteria or other microorganisms, because they have tremendous applications in changing the way we create raw materials for design,“ said Telhan, who shares this sentiment with Luchtman. Bacteria is what keeps us healthy, allows us to ferment food, and perhaps might offer a path for how we design objects in the future. As scientists and designers continue to collaborate, and a new generation of creatives dedicate their work to biomaterials, new discoveries using bacteria are sure to emerge.

This article is part of a series exploring new materials in design, linked to the A/D/O 2019 curatorial theme Future Matter(s).

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.