Picture the scene. It’s the future and you've just rolled out of bed, swallowed your “full English breakfast” pill, washed down the day's Soma with a cup of (insert futuristic prefix here)-coffee and, as your media hub burns the day’s news directly into your hippocampus, it’s time to decide what to wear to the office (or wherever it is you go every day in a post-apocalyptic wasteland).
Will you reach into a wardrobe or chest of drawers and pull out some silvery, streamlined duds? No - that’s so 21st century. You will reach instead into a vat of festering microbial slime and draw forth a perfectly formed outfit made not from cotton, or even glimmering metallic spandex, but from fibrous sheets of a skin-like material produced as a by-product of bacterial fermentation.
This is the vision (well, the clothing bit anyway) of Biocouture, a project started up by Suzanne Lee, a Senior Research Fellow at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and author of “Fashioning the Future: tomorrow?s wardrobe”.
In the course of writing her book, Suzanne interviewed biologist and materials scientist Dr David Hepworth, co-director of CelluComp, a Scottish biotech firm. The pair decided to collaborate and develop new materials for clothing by exploiting bacteria which, during fermentation, form a dense layer of cellulose microfibrils that can be harvested and dried. As a result, Biocouture was born.
Biocouture uses a mixed culture of bacterial cellulose, yeasts and other microorganisms, particularly Gluconacetobacter xylinus,which is added to a sugary green tea solution. The bacteria feed on the sugar and spin fine threads of cellulose, forming a skin on the surface of the liquid. When the skin is around 1.5cm thick, after two to three weeks, it is removed from the vat. It can then be moulded or dried flat and cut and sewn into a garment.
The biomaterial requires far less dye than other fibres and it doesn’t require pesticides in the way that plants such as cotton do, giving it an environmental edge. It’s also fully biodegradable.
But don’t rush out and buy a vat for your microbial goo-based wardrobe just yet. The Biocouture website warns that the material is super-absorbent. Getting caught in the rain would lead to a soggy mess, so the team is working on new, waterproof materials. The clothes have yet to be made commercially available – the photo here is an experimental prototype. The similarity to skin also means the current batch of designs looks a bit creepy - they'd make excellent Halloween costumes.