by Alexandra Ramsey | November 24th, 2020
Engaging in constant retail therapy or following the latest fashion trends might soon lead to a bacterial cellulose sweater in your dresser or a pair of mushroom-based Adidas sneakers in your closet. Big-name clothing brands around the world are starting to partner with biotechnology companies, paving the way for a bio-revolution in the textiles industry. Among several advantages, bio-based textiles offer the capacity for stronger and more durable products. A common example is spider silk; once spun into a material, it is five times stronger than steel. As if that wasn’t enough, researchers in Sweden have developed even stronger textiles from cellulose-based fibers. Yet, while flashy new threads might turn heads, biotechnology offers an even greater advantage for the textile industry: sustainability.
There is potential for biotechnology to transform the textile industry and make bio-based textiles a highly profitable —and more eco-friendly— market in the coming years. However, biotech in textiles is still a young industry with few players, and a commercially available product made entirely from biotechnological processes has yet to come to market. So, the question is: Will biotech-based fabrics become mainstream or remain a niche market?
The textile industry is in need of a sustainable makeover
The global textile market is highly profitable but contributes to pollution and vast accumulation of mass in landfills; even “natural” biodegradable fabrics come at an environmental cost. However, some companies believe that their bio-based textile technologies are the answer to these issues. The environmental impact of the textile industry is rooted heavily in water contamination. In fact, 20% of water pollutants are produced by textile mills. During the fabric dying process, up to half of the dye is washed away and ends up in wastewater, eventually seeping into the environment. Many synthetic dyes are already toxic, and they can be transformed into even more dangerous chemicals when they interact with compounds in treated wastewater. Natural dyes themselves may be less harmful than synthetic dyes, but chemicals must still be added to adhere these dyes to fabric. A large portion of these “fixing” chemicals are washed away and still pose a threat to the environment.
Water pollution is not the only harmful impact of the textile industry. Most clothing is derived from synthetic materials, such as polyester and nylon, that can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. The majority of textiles eventually make their way to landfills, and, as a consequence, huge quantities of non-biodegradable waste will be produced as the global synthetic fibers market continues to increase. This has inspired a recent push toward natural fibers, but “natural” does not solve everything. Even though natural fibers such as cotton are biodegradable, many of the pesticides and insecticides that are used on cotton fields still seep into the water supply. Additionally, growing natural fibers demands immense quantities of water – roughly 2,000 gallons of water are needed to grow enough cotton for a single pair of jeans. Other natural fibers, such as hemp and bamboo, face similar issues in terms of water usage and contamination.
If the textiles market continues on its trajectory, the environmental outlook is bleak. But fortunately, there is new hope on the horizon. Advances in biotechnology have given this budding industry a chance to address the damaging environmental impacts associated with textiles. Many microbes, including yeast and bacteria, can act as tiny “factories” to produce proteins, dyes, and other compounds that can be transformed into fabrics. These fabrics are not only biodegradable but also generated without the need for excessive land and water resources or harsh chemicals.
Several biotech companies are beginning to revolutionize textiles
Given the potential benefits of bio-based textiles, biotechnology companies around the world are sprouting up to compete with the textile industry (Table 1). By combining creativity and technology, these companies are designing materials and dyes that could launch the textile industry into a sustainable future.
Table 1: A snapshot of biotechnology companies in the textile industry.
|Company||Year Founded||Location||Primary Product||Fiber/Dye Source||Stage|
|Spider silk protein (yeast fermentation)
Mylo launch within 2 years
|2007||Japan||“Brewed Protein”||Spider silk protein (microbial fermentation)||Prototypes complete
Launch in 2021
|2008||Germany||“Biosteel”||Spider silk protein (bacterial fermentation)||Prototypes complete
|2016||Germany||Fiber and dye||Algae||Prototypes complete
Launch in 2021
|2014||Australia||“Nullarbor”||Microbial cellulose||Prototypes complete Commercial soon|
|2015||France||Dye||Microorganisms engineered with enzymes||Scaling up in 2021
Commercial in 2022
|2016||UK||Dye||Engineered bacteria (used in place of dye liquid)||Currently has 3 textile-based clients that use the bacterial dye|
Spider Silk and Mushroom Leather
Bio-based fibers might just be in the window the next time you pass Adidas or Lululemon. These companies, in addition to Kering and Stella McCartney, have announced partnerships with Bolt Threads and plan to sell products featuring bio-based material in 2021. Bolt Threads, a Bay Area-based biotech company with a mission to create sustainable materials as alternatives to traditional fabrics, has made considerable progress toward reinventing two highly valued luxury substances: silk and leather. Bolt Threads’ “Microsilk” fabric is derived from yeast that has been engineered to produce spider silk protein. During fermentation, the yeast grows and replicates, synthesizing and secreting spider silk protein in the process. The protein is then isolated and spun into fibers. Bolt Threads’ other main production line is “Mylo,” a leather-like material that is derived from the root structure of mushrooms, known as mycelium. Bolt Threads is currently focused on bringing Mylo to market. They aim to create a sustainable leather alternative with the same feel, luxury, and performance as traditional leather. While Bolt Threads has developed prototypes, such as a “mushroom leather” bag to attract interest, commercial products are still in the works. However, keep your wallet at the ready: they expect a commercial launch in the next two years.
Waste Not, Want Not
Across the Pacific Ocean, Nanollose, a biotech company based in Australia, is tackling sustainable fashion from multiple angles. Their materials are derived from microbial cellulose, which is grown in-house with specific bacterial strains. In addition to producing biodegradable fabric, Nanollose seeks to reduce waste from other industries. The cellulose-producing “bacterial factories” currently feast on waste from coconut processing, but in the future, Nanollose plans to employ waste from food, beverage, and agriculture industries. “We will be able to remediate and repurpose waste,” says Alfie Germano, CEO-Managing Director of Nanollose. Taking sustainability one step further, Nanollose hopes that other industries will repurpose the natural waste produced from the bacterial factories. This would generate a sustained loop with industrial waste inputs and few, if any, waste outputs. Nanollose has already transformed microbial cellulose into a proof-of-concept “Nullarbor Fiber” sweater and plans to commercially launch uber eco-friendly garments in the very near future.
Dyeing from Sugar
Addressing the other main component of textiles, PILI is a company based in France that engineers microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast, to express enzymes for converting sugars into pigment molecules. As the bacteria consume sugars, they produce dyes as a “by-product,” which can be isolated directly from the cultures. While chemical-based fixers can negate the impact of bio-based dyes, PILI has taken this into consideration. “We decided from the beginning not to use fixers… We focus on dyestuffs that are non-toxic…but we also focus a lot on those that adhere more easily to the fabric,” says Guillaume Boissonnat, co-founder of PILI. PILI will be scaling up dye-production in 2021, preparing for business-to-business sales in 2022.
Biotech companies in the textile industry face several hurdles
There is vast potential for biotech companies to disrupt the textile industry, but first they will have to overcome several hurdles. One of the most pressing challenges they face is that in order to make products that are accessible and affordable to the general public, companies must learn to efficiently produce their materials on a large scale. Most biotech companies require space to house microbial factories and expertise to extract proteins and dyes, or, in the case of fabric companies, transform proteins into fibers. However, it is only a matter of time before biotech companies catch up. Beer and wine companies have been fermenting yeast at scale for more than 100 years – these industries serve as models for how biotech companies can effectively scale bio-based textiles.
The beer industry, however, cannot serve as inspiration when it comes to many of the technical challenges in bio-based textiles. For example, several biotech companies rely on spider silk protein, yet the process for generating full size spider silk proteins is non-trivial. The proteins are much larger than proteins typically expressed in microorganisms, and thus truncated versions of the full-length proteins are often produced. These truncated versions tend to exhibit reduced strength and flexibility. Due to the complex nature of biology, each product represents unique technical hurdles. Matt Smith, a Lead Scientists at Bolt Threads, says that the biggest challenge he faces as a scientist is how to fully utilize mycelium when making “Mylo” material. “How do we get the most out of the structure and the properties of our mycelium, and how do we make that stand out?” The trick is developing a product that resembles a well-known product while simultaneously being unique. For example, consumers may desire the luxury of leather but also want to be reminded that their purchase is making a sustainable difference. This is a technical challenge that is faced by any company choosing to exploit a new material, and like scalability, it will likely be overcome in time.
Demand for bio-based textiles may lead to high market penetration
Bio-based fabrics and dyes seem to solve many of the issues plaguing the textile industry, and the challenges are not deal-breakers. Yet given that these fabrics and dyes are yet not mainstream, how likely are they to achieve high market penetration? Time will tell, but many biotech companies are gearing up to compete with the current market and believe that it is only a matter of time before bio-based alternatives become mainstream. Competitive pricing will likely be key for maximum adoption by consumers. Guillaume Boissonnat, co-founder of PILI, says, “We want to have a huge impact on dyes manufacturing and therefore target the global dyes market…we engineer our microorganisms so that their productivity allows us to produce the dyes at a competitive price.” AlgiKnit, a New York-based company that produces fibers from kelp, also aims to produce yarns that compete with mainstream materials on both price and performance. Even if the price point for sustainable fabrics and dyes is higher than conventional products, some consumers might be willing to shell out the extra penny. McKinsey & Company says that consumers want more sustainable fashion, and Alfie Germano of Nanollose confirms that “demand is a driver by customers pushing brands for greener alternatives, and demand is high.”
While there is demand among some consumers, there may be pushback from others. One potential issue surrounding bio-based textiles is the corresponding production of waste, particularly organic biowaste from fermentation processes, that might create a new source of contamination. However, developers in this space are very mindful of replacing one pollutant with another that is equally harmful to the population and the environment. These companies focus on developing effective disposal systems that bring solutions, not new problems. Nanollose, for example, is working on creative alternatives whereby their waste can be repurposed by other industries: “The effluent from our process produces a highly diluted acidic acid (vinegar) that we aim to pass to other industries for use, e.g. natural cleaning products,” says Alfie Germano. The concern for production of biowaste is valid, but given the sustainability mindset of many companies and consumers, the potential advantages of bio-based textiles will likely overcome the hesitations.
Bio-based textiles might be the fabric of the future
Biotech companies are poised to make a sustainable difference in textiles. The incorporation of biotechnology into garments and other fabrics is still a young industry, but consumer enthusiasm is high, and companies are optimistic. So be ready – the year 2021 is anticipated to be a pivotal year for bio-based materials as companies start releasing products into the mainstream market. The public’s response to these product launches, as well as the ability to sustain large-scale production, will shape the biotech textile industry in the years to come.
-Alexandra Ramsey is a PhD candidate in the Chemical Biology program at UC Berkeley.